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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

  • By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.
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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is defined as a physiological response following the administration of a pharmacologically inert “remedy.” The word placebo means “I will please,” and the placebo effect has a long history of use (and abuse) in medicine. The reality of the effect is undisputed. In one classic study, medical students were given one of two different pills, one said to be a sedative and the other a stimulant. In fact, both pills contained only inert ingredients. Of the students who received the “sedative,” more than two-thirds reported that they felt drowsy, and students who took two such pills felt sleepier than those who had taken only one. Conversely, a large fraction of the students who took the “stimulant” reported that they felt less tired. Moreover, about a third of the entire group reported side effects ranging from headaches and dizziness to tingling extremities and a staggering gait! Only 3 of the 56 students studied reported that the pills they took had no appreciable effect.

In another study of this general sort, 75% of patients suffering from postoperative wound pain reported satisfactory relief after an injection of sterile saline. The researchers who carried out this work noted that the responders were indistinguishable from the nonresponders, both in the apparent severity of their pain and psychological makeup. Most tellingly, this placebo effect in postoperative patients could be blocked by naloxone, a competitive antagonist of opiate receptors, indicating a substantial pharmacological basis for the pain relief experienced (see the next section). A common misunderstanding about the placebo effect is the view that patients who respond to a therapeutically meaningless reagent are not suffering real pain, but only “imagining” it; this is certainly not the case.

Among other things, the placebo effect probably explains the efficacy of acupuncture anesthesia and the analgesia that can sometimes be achieved by hypnosis. In China, surgery has often been carried out under the effect of a needle (often carrying a small electrical current) inserted at locations dictated by ancient acupuncture charts. Before the advent of modern anesthetic techniques, operations such as thyroidectomies for goiter were commonly done without extraordinary discomfort, particularly among populations where stoicism was the cultural norm.

The mechanisms of pain amelioration on the battlefield, in acupuncture anesthesia, and with hypnosis are presumably related. Although the mechanisms by which the brain affects the perception of pain are only beginning to be understood, the effect is neither magical nor a sign of a suggestible intellect. In short, the placebo effect is quite real.

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11141

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