All in the mind

Imagine a treatment that can relieve pain, improve sleep, reduce stress, ease nausea and reduce depression. In fact, it can help with almost any illness you can imagine. It’s free, available everywhere and has no nasty side-effects. It’s not new, nor is it high-tech.

That treatment is the placebo effect — the mind-body phenomenon that has been scorned for decades in medicine, but which contemporary science is proving to have powerful potential for healing.

The term “placebo effect”, also known as the “placebo response”, is used in medical literature to describe what happens when a “fake” treatment, such as a sugar pill or sham acupuncture, improves a patient’s condition.

It was first used in this context in 1955 by US physician Henry Beecher. In a now-famous article, Beecher collected data from 15 studies with 1082 patients suffering varying degrees of pain. He showed that a placebo painkiller was effective in an average of 35.2 per cent of cases. Since then, innumerable researchers have verified the importance of the placebo effect in treatment for a range of conditions.

Researchers use groups receiving a placebo treatment in their studies to help separate how much benefit comes from the so-called active treatment (such as a drug or type of therapy) from what can be attributed to the placebo response. Placebo effects generally occur in about 30 per cent of cases.

Shifting the stigma

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