Does the placebo effect really work?

Q. I just began taking a new drug. My doctor said I probably wouldn’t feel any improvement for several weeks, but I felt better the next day. Is that a placebo effect?

A. The response by any person to a new drug or treatment is so variable, it’s almost impossible to know for certain whether your drug had some immediate effect or if it was a placebo response (improvement in symptoms from the act of taking a drug independent of its biological effects).

This is why placebos are commonly used in clinical trials to test the effectiveness of a specific therapy, especially when evaluating how well a drug works. For instance, people in one group get the tested drug, while the others receive a “fake” drug, or placebo, that they think is real. This way, the researchers can measure if the drug works by comparing how both groups react. If they both have the same reaction — improvement or not — the drug is deemed not to work.

However, experts have concluded that reacting to a placebo is not proof that a certain treatment doesn’t work, but rather that another, non-pharmacological mechanism may be present.

How placebos work is still not fully understood. The placebo effect is probably more than just the power of positive thinking. It involves a complex neurobiological reaction that includes everything from increases in feel-good neurotransmitters, like endorphins and dopamine, to greater activity in certain brain regions linked to moods, emotional reactions, and self-awareness.

Brain activity changes when people respond to a placebo. In one study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people with chronic pain from knee osteoarthritis. Then everyone was given a placebo and had another brain scan. The researchers noticed that those who felt pain relief had greater activity in the middle frontal gyrus brain region of the frontal lobe.

Placebos often work because people don’t know they get one. But what happens if you do know that what you’re taking is a placebo?

Researchers explored this question years ago by testing how people reacted to migraine pain medication. One group took a migraine drug labeled with the drug’s name, another took a placebo labeled “placebo,” and a third group took nothing. The researchers discovered that the placebo was 50% as effective as the real drug in reducing pain after a migraine attack.

The researchers speculated that a driving force beyond this reaction was the simple act of taking a pill. People associate the ritual of taking medicine with a positive healing effect. Even if they know it’s not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.

— Howard LeWine, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Men’s Health Watc

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

2 Corinthians 13:9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.

Colossians 1:28 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.

Colossians 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.

2 Corinthians 10:15-16 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.

2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater;

2 Peter 3:18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Ephesians 1:17-18 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,

Ephesians 3:16-19 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, read more

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