Four Placebo Effect Examples in Real Life

Placebo pill cover

Our mind is one of the most powerful tools that we humans, unfortunately, do not know how to use. We simply manifest reality without knowing consciously, even the spiritual masters claim that once a human fully understands how to utilize our mind, we are nothing short of a God. However, not all of us have time to meditate or believe in such talks, yet examples of this actually exist.  Medical science uses something known as a placebo in many cases to trick patients into thinking they are recovering without any actual medication.

What is Placebo Effect?

The term placebo can be defined in multiple ways. It is a fake process or a substance that has no therapeutic value, however, when it is being shown and perceived by others as something real, it can actually provide some benefits to an individual by simply altering their belief system. The most popular way of producing a placebo is giving sugar pills to a patient by reassuring them that it will work.

It was first demonstrated by a British Physician named, John Haygarth in 1799 where he treated five patients with rheumatism, a condition with pain in joints and muscles. He used something known as Perkins Tractor, a rod made of steel and brass but claimed to be made of an unusual alloy that could draw out the disease. Haygarth knew it was just a way to sell these products and used a wooden rod that looked identical to the Perkins tractor. However, upon treating the patients even with a wooden road, 4 out of 5 patients claimed that their pain was lowered. He later called this phenomenon The Imagination Effect.

John Hay garth

A portrait of John Haygarth.

According to experts, it is the expectation of a process or a substance that can lead to the workings of the placebo. If one strongly expects medicine to make them feel better, they actually start to feel better. In the year 1985, Irving Kirsch stated that as long as a patient is receiving active treatment (the act of it), and continuously being told that this procedure or medicine does wonders, one tends to raise their expectations and actually start to feel better.

Nocebo Effect: Though the placebo effect has shown time after time that it works and can help alleviate some symptoms, the contrary is true as well. As scientists have confirmed that it works on the principle of expectation, if one is expecting to get sick after ingesting a fake pill, they are likely to suffer ill-effects of this procedure known as the Nocebo effect.

Real-Life Examples of the Placebo Effect

Though the effects of placebo are real and work on each and everyone on a daily basis, we still like to place our trust in something that comes with evidence. In addition to the expectation, emotions, visual, and verbal cues also play an important role. These are the scientific studies that proved that placebo works.

Placebo Effect Image

Cause and effect of the Placebo.

  • Cancer Fatigue: Cancer is easily one of the worst things that can happen to an alive person and chemotherapy does kill cancer cells but it also takes a huge toll on a person’s body. Cancer survivors often report having serious fatigue and in a 2018 study, 74 patients were experimented on for 3 weeks. They were separated into two groups, the first group was given fake pills labeled as “placebo” while the other group received their usual treatment. After 3 weeks the first group claimed that their condition actually improved and they feel less tired. The ones who received the treatment had an option to take pills as well after 3 weeks and only after taking the placebo pills they reported they were feeling better.
  • Migraine: In a 2014 study, 66 people were asked to test out a new drug for their migraine pain. But here the pills were not simply handed to the patients, they were labeled differently and an actual migraine medicine was used as well. They monitored and reported six different migraine episodes. They were asked to rate the intensity of pain 30 minutes into the episode and take the said pill and rate the pain again after 2.5 hours. Of course, the people who took real medicine got the most relief, however, people who took specifically labeled fake pills claimed their pain was eased a lot compared to the patients who took a neutral labeled pill. So, visuals can also affect the intensity of the placebo.
  • Depression: One of the most overlooked and serious mental disorders was also tested under a placebo. Specific 35 patients who were suffering from depression were chosen who were not on any kind of medication. In this study, two groups were made where two types of fake pills were used. The first pill was labeled as fast-acting, and the second one was regular and this was given to the patients for a week and after a week their brains’ activity was monitored in a PET scan followed by a fake injection that was said to improve their mood. Following this, pills were switched between the group, followed by another PET scan, and finally, all the participants received actual antidepressants for 10 weeks. The first group who received fast-acting pills was seen to have reduced symptoms of depression and the injection prior to the PET scan revealed that these people experienced higher brain activity in areas associated with emotions and stress. The people with higher brain activity responded better to antidepressants.
  • Weight Loss: In an experiment workers of two shifts of a hotel cleaning staff had a check-up. While one shift of hotel’s cleaning staff was told about the benefits of their work on their body and how much exercise they were getting from it, another staff was told nothing. 3 weeks after this they all were checked again and it was found that the people who were told that their work was healthy actually lost weight, had a drop in their cholesterol level, while others had no change.

There are countless other examples of the placebo effect, such as when a mother kisses a hurt child, the child actually starts to feel better, or when restaurants add food colors to produce the desired effect and we actually start to taste the flavors that are not present. However, all of these examples, while being true does not have a scientific basis unlike the ones mentioned above.

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