If I were to ask you which drug is the most versatile in treating illness, what would you say? Penicillin? Aspirin? Acetaminophen? Well the true answer may surprise you! It turns out that the most flexible treatment we know of is actually the absence of treatment, placebos! The placebo-effect is a medical phenomena in which a patient’s belief that they are receiving treatment, or placebo, results in improvements of their condition (Colloca et al., 2014). In an effort to understand the placebo effect, we must better understand the biologic and social underpinnings of the experience.
It has been well documented that social engagement has a large positive impact on the healing process (Hajek et al., 2017). In order for a patient to receive a placebo, someone has to provide it for them. Current theory states that the interaction and support the clinician provides may be the factor that initiates the biologic cascade of events that leads to an improvement in the patient’s condition (Colloca et al., 2014)!
Biologically speaking, there is still a lot to learn about how the placebo effect works. Current research suggests that the positive effects seen from placebos occur due to release of endogenous, or naturally produced, opioids. Research has even found that the placebo effect can be blocked if the clinician provides the patient with naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids (Hall, Loscalzo, & Kaptchuk, 2015; Gupta & Verma, 2013).
The power that placebos hold is a reflection of our mind’s power to heal. The relationships we maintain with those around us are integral to our physiological health. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I understand that staying connected with friends can be difficult. This is a reminder that taking time to call a friend or have a socially distanced meal with a family member is an important form of self-care!