Can the placebo effect actually help patients?

Placebos are substances that have no actual medical benefit.  In scientific studies, patients will receive a placebo instead of the real medication to see if the actual study medicine works.  But can there be a health benefit to placebos?  Can our mind overcome health issues by believing we are being treated?

A very interesting study occurred in patients with Parkinson’s Disease.  Parkinson’s disease causes tremors and difficulty walking, because the brain cells have decreased levels of Dopamine.   In the study, a new medication was given to half the patients, and the other patients got a “placebo”, or sugar tablet.  The group that was taking the placebo actually showed significant improvement.  And their MRI scans showed improvement in brain activity!

How could this possibly happen?  The scientists believe that the placebo actually caused dopamine to be released in the brain.  We know that dopamine is part of the “reward center’ of the brain, and is released when a patient feels happy and rewarded.  So the placebo actually increased the dopamine level, because the patients felt hopeful and positive about their condition being treated.

Another study was done on chronic pain patients, and found that 30-50% will respond to placebos.   A similar study by University of Colorado, Boulder researchers found that placebo saline (salt water) injections reduced chronic lower-back pain.   In these studies, patients were told they were getting a placebo, but they still had improvement in their pain!



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