Pain is something of a mystery. While we all experience it, and experience it in degrees, there’s no ‘gold standard’ for estimating the degree of pain. It seems to be a ‘subjective’ experience. In some of the research literature, such as this study, the placebo effect is given a credible place in the landscape of pain and pain management.
“Placebo effects that arise from patients’ positive expectancies and the underlying endogenous modulatory mechanisms may in part account for the variability in pain experience and severity, adherence to treatment, distinct coping strategies, and chronicity. Expectancy-induced analgesia and placebo effects in general have emerged as useful models to assess individual endogenous pain modulatory systems.”
Meantime, in the category of ‘Out There But Maybe Not As Out There As You Might Think’ virtual reality may have the capacity to harness the placebo effect in pain management.
“Recently, Cedars-Sinai also published research on the clinical utility of a virtual reality intervention in the Inpatient setting. The results of the study were overwhelmingly positive with most patients receiving pain and stress relief from the VR experience.”
The ‘open’ and ‘close’ buttons in elevators, the ‘hurry up cross now’ buttons on street crossings and even the thermostat controls in hotel rooms may all be making use of the placebo effect, claims The Sydney Morning Herald
Pain is a subjective state – that’s why practitioners typically ask us to ‘scale’ our experience of it, from a ‘1’ (slight) to a ’10’ (unbearable). And while it’s easy to see why the experience of pain is useful in an evolutionary sense (‘keep your hand out of the fire!’) it’s difficult to account for what mechanism is responsible for this experience. Different analgesics may have different effects (and affects) for different people, and some don’t seem to contraindicate – it seems you can ingest an opioid at the same time as paracetemol.
Brain anatomy (such as asymmetry in areas of the brain that control emotion and reward, including the amygdala, accumbens and hippocampus), and
‘Personality’ – especially mindsets “emotionally self-aware, attuned to the body and mindful of one’s surroundings”
At Universal Placebos we’ve always known that awareness and mindfulness are part of the therapeutic value of placebos, of course, which is why our product comes bundled with instructions for mindful and meaningful administration.
“Down the line, the clinician could give five or six questions to the patient and decide whether they should just prescribe a sugar pill to them,” say the researchers. “The higher they score on this personality questionnaire, the bigger their placebo response will be.”
Finland’s Arctic circle might not seem like a great place to run a marathon barefoot and in shorts—unless you’re Wim Hof. Hof, better known as “The Iceman,” has attained roughly two dozen world records by completing marvellous feats of physical endurance in conditions that would kill others. Yet even he was understandably nervous the night before his 26-mile jaunt at -4 degrees Fahrenheit.
“What did I get myself into?” he recalls thinking. But from the moment his bare toes hit the snow, he began to feel “surprisingly good.”
MRI scans reveal that Wim Hof artificially induces a stress response in his brain. “By accident or by luck he found a hack into the physiological system,” they say.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the placebo effect has a great influence on medical treatment. An international, interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Professor of Health Psychology Andrea Evers from Leiden University has now written a first set of guidelines on how to apply the placebo effect in clinical practice, published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.
It was the result of the first official conference of the Society for Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies (SIPS), which was held in Leiden last year. During an interdisciplinary workshop led by Evers, a group of leading international researchers reached the consensus that knowledge about placebo and nocebo effects could lead to better treatment results with fewer side-effects. According to the researchers, it is crucial that patients receive more information about these effects, and that doctors receive training on the best doctor-patient communication to maximise placebo effects and minimise nocebo effects.
The idea is that ‘the placebo effect’ activates the same ‘Reward Circuit’ in the brain as that “activated by food, sex and social interactions (as well as gambling and addictive drugs)”. This in turn stimulates the immune system and generates ‘anti-tumor immunity’ against pathogens.
This is Scientific American, dear readers, and the claim is based on the kind of clinical experimentation that placebos are now inspiring. Placebo Studies!
“It’s like doing immunotherapy without medication.”
At the moment it’s just been shown in mice, and the ‘data are preliminary’, but even if it turns out only partly to be shown in humans, the implications are profound.
Open Label Placebos (OLPs) are becoming a Thing, reinforced once more by Ted Kaptchuk’s placebo research group at Harvard Medical School. This article – Open-Label Placebo (OLP): Take This, It Is A Sugar Pill, It Will Help You! – provides us with a succinct update on the current clinical research scene, including valuable reference to two meta-studies which attempt to summarise the current state of our understanding. Importantly, the writers note that formal studies to date “have shown that while openly-applied placebos affect symptoms (depression, motor activity, pain, fatigue, etc.), none have yet shown that it may also affect disease biomarkers. Secondly, patient (self-)selection has to be tested for biases, e.g., whether the recruited patients are prone to respond to placebo, while others not recruited are not. Last but not least, it would be important to know how OLP compares to effective drug treatment of the same condition and in the same patients.”