Nkechi Oti explores the therapeutic potential of the Placebo effect in curative medicine
A placebo is a substance or treatment with no active therapeutic effect. We use it in medicine for certain treatments and also in drug testing. I had a patient recently who was trying to lose some weight, she got on our program and worked really hard. She was exercising five times a week and eating very healthy. She confessed that she felt lighter and more energetic and was even getting compliments on her slimmer frame. After two weeks she checked her weight only to discover that she had not lost any weight. Immediately after that she stopped exercising and got less strict with her diet. This has happened to a lot of people. Now compare this with another patient of mine who was also trying to lose weight, she just had a stroke one month earlier. After four weeks she had lost 5kg, she was so excited and remained persistent with her exercise. This got me thinking, it was amazing how the minds of these women were working for them.
And this is common in medicine. There are people who recover from illnesses after a drug had been administered, only to later discover that they were given a placebo. There was a hair growth study done, where bald men were told that they were being given a hair growth serum, but it was a non-therapeutic placebo, and some of these men actually grew hair while on the study. And there are people who were seemingly healthy and okay, that discovered that they had cancer, and within weeks started to waste away and lose a lot of weight.
Scientist believe that the psychology of a person is very powerful in how the person reacts and recovers. When people expect a certain result due to the counselling they’ve gotten and the conviction they have, their chemistry changes and their attitude changes to synthesise the expected result. It’s like the person that begins to develop persistent headaches after he’s told that his blood pressure is high. Or when you are not feeling well, then you google your symptoms and more symptoms associated with the existing symptoms come up and within minutes you start experiencing those same symptoms. It’s the placebo effect. In the cases where the effect is negative, we call it the “nocebo” effect.
Knowing this we need to use this in the treatment of our patients. Is it possible to give a type of care a counselling to a patient that they begin to create an expected result? Is it possible to convince and counsel a person to believe that they would recover and even administer placebos that help the process? I think we could. For the ladies I talked about trying to lose weight, prior to checking their progress they were just fine sticking with their healthy program. But the negative result that one person got, changed her psychology so much so that she began to sabotage her program.
I believe we need to address the psychology of a person as we treat them, and encourage their minds to help them achieve the results that are beneficial for them.