The Placebo Effect and Mind Body Healing

By Val Silver

Both the placebo effect and its opposite nocebo effect are sources of fascination for students of mind body healing and medical researchers alike. Spontaneous healing, sham medicine and surgeries that heal as well as the real thing attest to the power of the mind.

Placebo means "I will please". When your subconscious mind accepts a suggestion and completely believes it to be true, it acts to make it a reality. 

Because we are programmed to believe what authority figures such as doctors, tell us, healing may occur even if our treatment was completely bogus.

The brain is responsible for directing many functions of the body. Perhaps one of the most interesting is how your powerful subconscious mind can bring about either spontaneous healing or illness. Either way, it appears that the subconscious mind must first hold the belief. It then directs orders to the DNA and the cells of the body to create according to what it believes or is programmed to do.

Whether a mind body healing happens coincidentally or as hoped, stories of miraculous instantaneous recoveries demonstrate the powerful connection of body and mind. Even though we may think otherwise, this type of healing is so common,  that drug researchers are required to have a control group of participants receiving placebos, usually sugar pills or saline solution, instead of the drug being tested. 

Sham Placebo Surgery

During a sham surgery, a patient goes through all the typical steps of a procedure except the one with therapeutic value. Remarkably, patients report relief whether the surgery was real or not.

As the following video demonstrates, a few fascinating studies have even shown the positive effects of realistic, but fake surgeries. This well-known placebo surgery study was conducted in Houston in 2002. Researchers at the Houston VA Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine found that a common type of knee surgery was no more beneficial than the placebo effect. As you will hear, Dr. Bruce Moseley of Methodist Hospital in Houston was astonished by the result of his carefully crafted placebo surgeries.

Another example of successful placebo surgery happened by accident.  Several patients had cement injected into a vertebrae to repair a fracture. However, they received treatment on the wrong bone. Still, they reported pain relief. As a result, a trial was set up with 130 patients. Some received the sham surgery while other patients received the real procedure. Both sets of patients reported similar improvements in pain and both groups showed similar improvements in physical function.  

Placebo Pills and Medicines

After his successful sham surgery, Dr. Mosley and his team performed an experiment to see whether a sham treatment would help people recover from a broken heart following a relationship breakup. 

First, participants viewed a photo of someone they held very positive feelings for. Then they looked at a photo of their ex and rated how they felt about each person. After that, they were administered a saline nasal spray. But they didn't know that. They thought the spray contained a drug for easing emotional pain. When the images were shown again, the exes ratings went up. Some participants even reported feeling mildly happy. 

Sham pills have helped a variety of physical and emotional conditions. My grandmother could not go a day without her sugar pill, I mean anxiety medication. We all knew what it was, except her. This was years ago when it was ethical for doctors to prescribe a placebo. If it worked, great, no need for real drugs.

Somehow, fake medicine taps into the same pain control regions as opiods without causing addiction. Even serious conditions respond. Brain scans proved that dopamine levels in the brains of Parkinson's patients increased after being given a dummy pill.

placebo effect sham pills

The color and size of a pill influence how many people improve and how much.  Blue tends to be associated with calming down, while a red pill suggests an energizing effect. The expectation that a bigger pill will be more effective also increases the chance for a positive result. 

At the end of prescription drug commercials, listen for the list of possible side effects and how many study subjects improved due to the placebo effect alone. That number is usually around one-third, or 33%. Several studies have shown that sham pills respond as well as those given antidepressants. A  urinary incontinence drug commercial stating that 50% of subjects on placebos showed improvement. That means half of the people experienced the same good results that people on the actual drug had, without the negative side effects. 

Some studies suggest that even when people are told they are receiving a placebo pill, a percentage of them improve. 

Surprisingly, animals also exhibit the placebo effect. Forty percent of rats conditioned to expect pain relief from morphine injections responded favorably to saline injections.  Some dogs have fewer epileptic seizures with the help of dummy pills. 

The placebo effect and alternative therapies

The placebo effect is not limited to modern medicine. The power of positive expectation works regardless of the type of treatment being received.

A recent study showed that people treated correctly with acupuncture had just as much back pain relief as those who had needles placed randomly on their bodies. 

A similar effect happens when people under deep hypnosis accept the suggestion that they have a rash, so a rash develops right before their eyes. Then it instantly vanishes with another suggestion.

Shamans and faith healers take advantage of the healing power of the mind by using elaborate rituals to build up belief and the emotional state of patients before a healing. Emotion and belief together is a potent combination for getting the subconscious to act.  Note, however, that this is not always the case. Some people experience spontaneous natural healing without evident emotion or belief involved by either the healer or the one being healed.

I had this happen to me. When the chiropractor hired by my insurance company wrote in his report that my whiplash would be all better in six months, I laughed. My chiropractor and I would joke about it during my appointments. How could he possibly know how long it would take? At the five month mark, I was in more pain than ever. So much for his prediction, I thought, wishing it were true. But by mid-January, almost six months to the day, the joke was on me. The pain miraculously disappeared. Somehow, my subconscious mind accepted his prediction and the placebo effect worked for me.

Trying to fully understand, tap into, and master this creative and healing power of the subconscious mind is a popular are of study for individuals seeking to put it to work for mind body healing, manifesting abundance and achieving a variety of personal goals. 

Although it is not fully understood, the placebo effect and its opposite nocebo effect are, without a doubt, real powers of your mind.  Hopefully in the future we will understand how to harness this power and use it on command. In the meantime, we can only marvel and be thankful when we get to experience our own personal miracle healing. 

Source: Documentary Investigates the Placebo Effect on Back Pain

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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