Unexpected Benefits of the Placebo Effect

The placebo effect, the improvement in the condition of a patient that cannot be attributed to the applied treatment, is a widely accepted phenomenon. “Placebo treatments—interventions with no active drug ingredients—can stimulate real physiological responses in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even some symptoms of Parkinson’s”, writes journalist Cara Feinberg in Harvard Magazine.

The understanding of this fact, although has had encouraging progresses, is still in its infancy. Depending on the beliefs of the patients and the loquacity of the healers, recoveries are often attributed to metaphysical interventions such as saints’ miracles, aura cleanses, prana tunings or qi energy adjustments. The mysterious placebo effect achievements have soared both the expectations of millions of sick people and the interest of the academic world. There are some interesting developments in the knowledge of its workings as well as in the biology associated with it.

Although in the medical sense the word ‘placebo’, a substance prescribed more to please patients than to cure them, came into use only in the eighteenth century, we can metaphorically think that Jesus Christ himself was the discoverer of the phenomenon; he called it ‘faith’. According to the Gospels, the Lord used to say to the sick after their recovery: “Your faith has healed you”. (Such a phrase, of course, was never repeated after resurrections since those who are already dead cannot display any faith). Researchers are now certain, though, that the patients’ faith, be it in the doctor, the prescription, the healer, the concoction or the applied procedure, is a determining factor in the success of their recuperation.

Science, as we well know, does not swallow metaphysical stuff and a number of recent studies, though with no definitive conclusions as yet, are pointing to physiological explanations for some reliefs, particularly in pain management. Let’s look at two cases, both related to acupuncture, the practice most studied in the parallels between alternative medicine and conventional approaches.

Not everyone reacts in the same way to acupuncture procedures, either in their traditional mode with qi meridians and special needles, or in the sham versions ‘developed’ for comparative purposes. Furthermore, many people do not experience any reaction at all to any of the two approaches.

The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PIPS), sponsored by several Harvard-affiliated hospitals, is a multidisciplinary institute dedicated solely to placebo studies. One of PIPS studies has shown that patients with a specific variation of a gene associated with the production of dopamine, one of the most important chemicals in our body, were more prone to respond positively to needle pinches. In addition to establishing degrees of receptivity to placebos, this finding, if confirmed, will allow pharmaceutical companies the selection for drug testing of placebo-indifferent ‘human’ guinea pigs. Such possibility should substantially reduce both testing times and development costs.

One area in which acupuncture seems to have been particularly effective is in pain management. In another experiment, reported in Scientific American, researchers caused measurable artificial discomfort in laboratory mice, and then tried to heal the induced pain with needles.

Punctures indeed decreased pain in rodents (i.e., pinches improved their tolerance to it) and, unexpectedly, the emission of adenosine, a compound that has been recognized as useful in the reduction of the pain, increased abundantly. The application of adenosine injections to the lab mice led to similar results. In other words, the punctures did their work, but the relief was due to the increase in blood adenosine concentration, and not because of the acupuncture treatment.

Both findings are quite important. Everybody hopes many other discoveries will arrive soon and that, even not knowing the details about how they are working, the placebo effect investigations will continue producing direct and indirect benefits for human health.

Faith certainly cannot move mountains. However, blind confidence in healing treatments, either medical or magical, indeed ‘re-moves’ many ailments, even if we lack the knowledge on how they do their work… Or, at the very least and good enough, they do decrease the unbearable pain that many illnesses involve, an extremely important accomplishment by itself.​

Atlanta, September 2, 2016​


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