Placebo Effects: Why So Powerful in Alternative Medicine?


Can belief in the healing power of medicine be so powerful that it makes placebos work, even at a physical level? And how much of this belief is influenced by the doctor’s attitude toward and bond with the patient?

Recent articles in The Economist and’s The Chart health blog examine the power of placebos. A placebo is defined as a medical treatment that won’t have an effect on the ailment it’s supposed to be treating. Researchers commonly use placebos when they’re conducting studies on medical treatments, as a way of measuring the effectiveness of the real medication, aside from a patient’s belief in whether it works.

But belief can be a powerful thing, especially when it comes to alternative medicine. Clinical studies have suggested that many natural remedies, when subjected to medical research, can’t be distinguished from placebo treatments. These remedies include acupuncture, reflexology, herbal medicine and homeopathy. How, then, do patients find relief from ailments when they use these alternative treatments?

The answer may lie in the power of suggestion. Not only can belief in a placebo convince you that it’s working – it may actually change your physical state. A recent study conducted at a German university indicated that headache medicines may not actually work as well as you think they do: however, your belief in them can change your heartbeat, digestion, and blood pressure, as well as your perception of how much pain you’re experiencing. A 2002 study on arthritis surgery suggested that faked surgery can help reduce patients’ discomfort in a similar manner to the real thing. And another medical trial showed that patients who took placebo opiates often had shallow breathing, which is a side effect of real opiate medication.

The more complicated the placebo, the better chance it seems to have of making your body react in a way that’s similar to a clinically proven remedy. Surgeries work the best of all; then injections; and last, pills.

Your doctor’s bedside manner can have an effect on your reaction to a placebo. The more positive the doctor is about the treatment, the more you’re likely to believe it works. Alternative medicine practitioners are likely to be able to spend more time with each patient, and explain in more detail how the prescribed remedy will work. Because there’s doubt surrounding the remedies they’re advocating, they’re also more likely to spend time defending the remedy and making sure you’re confident in its power to heal. If you form a bond with your practitioner, the placebo effect may extend to multiple treatments you receive from her, and, surprisingly, may even endure if your doctor tells you she is actually giving you a placebo.


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