Harnessing the placebo effect, from the Harvard Health Letter

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More and more doctors, and their patients, are learning that the placebo effect can and should be harnessed to improve medical care.

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Attitudes about the placebo effect are shifting, even in conventional medical circles, according to the April 2012 Harvard Health Letter. Recognition that the placebo can—and should—be harnessed by doctors and patients to improve medical care is replacing skepticism and suspicion that it is inauthentic.

Why is this happening? Brain scan studies have shown that in many cases there may be objective changes in the brain that explain the placebo effect, as the April issue explains.

Randomized controlled trials have increased our understanding of the placebo effect. In one study that enrolled patients with irritable bowel syndrome, researchers associated with Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter showed that the response to a placebo—in this case, sham acupuncture—was much stronger if it was combined with attentive, empathetic interaction from the person delivering it.

Much more research needs to be done before the placebo effect is fully understood. But the Health Letter has these four suggestions based on what is known so far:

  •     Make sure you're getting the support you need from your doctor. Placebo effect research has shown how important a supportive doctor-patient relationship can be.
  •     Recognize that it might be "in your head," but there's nothing wrong with that. Behind the subject experience of feeling better are objective changes in brain chemistry that are only beginning to be understood.
  •     Find treatments you believe in… Expectations that an intervention will have some benefit increase the chances that it will.
  •     … but maintain some healthy skepticism. Quacks and charlatans can exploit the placebo effect to peddle treatments that are useless, even harmful.

Read the full-length article: "Putting the placebo effect to work"

Also in this issue:

  •     Vigorous exercise generates a metabolic "afterburn"
  •     Tai chi for Parkinson's disease
  •     A new, healthier way to make muffins
  •     An update on cataract surgery
  •     Should I worry about getting multiple cortisone shots?
  •     Is Vaseline good for the face?

The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $29 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/health or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Natalie Ramm at hhpmedia@hms.harvard.edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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Natalie Ramm