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Knowingly Taking a Placebo Still Reduces Pain, Studies Find
This technique could have applications in pain management and addiction treatment.
Imagine going to the doctor complaining of pain. The physician writes you a prescription. But instead of medication, you knowingly receive a placebo. How would you feel? This is a vitally important question, as the US is going through a chronic pain epidemic right now, with 100 million adults feeling significant pain on a consistent basis. As a consequence, we have the opioid epidemic.
A lot of patients in pain develop a tolerance to opioid pain relievers too quickly, and begin taking more than prescribed to kill bleed-through pain. But the relief only lasts for a time, causing a vicious cycle, forcing the patient to take more, and pushing them ever closer to addiction and overdose. Unfortunately, there are few long-term options, besides alternative medicine, when it comes to chronic pain. Now, imagine receiving effective pain relief without the risk of addiction, overdose, or even side effects?
One way to do that might be to instigate the placebo effect. Usually, we think of a placebo as a “fake” pill, sometimes called a sugar pill. They’re used in clinical trials, made to look just like the medication they are mimicking, but without any active ingredients. Researchers in two important studies found the results of using the placebo effect for medical aims was anything but fake. Today, knowledge of the effect is widespread. It’s so much a part of our consciousness that Harvard University researchers found that knowingly giving patients a placebo reduced their pain.
All medications come with the risk of side effects. What if we could induce the placebo effect for symptom relief?
Though we’ve known about the placebo effect for a long time, medical science still doesn’t know exactly how it works. In this study, researchers at Harvard Medical School wanted to know what impact, if any, the placebo effect would have, if participants knew up-front they were getting one. Dr. Ted J. Kaptchuk led the study on what are being called “open-label placebos.”
Professor Kaptchuk is the director of the Harvard-wide Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He’s been studying the placebo effect for over 20 years. In one of his previous studies, he and colleagues recruited irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. Each suffered from abdominal cramps, and either constipation or diarrhea. Half of participants received an “open-label” placebo. The other got no medical intervention. Those who received a sugar pill saw their symptoms improve dramatically.
In a second and more recent study, Prof. Kaptchuk looked at using the placebo effect to treat lower back pain, something every adult in the world will confront at one time or another. Globally, chronic lower back pain is the number one cause for disability. He and colleagues concluded that those patients who took a placebo knowingly, in addition to a traditional pain reliever, experienced more pain relief than those who took medication alone.
"This new research demonstrates that the placebo effect is not necessarily elicited by patients' conscious expectation that they are getting an active medicine, as long thought,” the researcher said. “Taking a pill in the context of a patient-clinician relationship -- even if you know it's a placebo -- is a ritual that changes symptoms and probably activates regions of the brain that modulate symptoms."
The ritual and expectations surrounding medical care may engage the brain in a way that can bring us relief.
97 patients with chronic lower back pain took part. Each was then given a one-on-one, 15-minute session outlining the placebo effect. Then, they were put randomly into one of two groups. The first received the usual treatment, while the second also received an open-label placebo. 85-88% of patients were already on pain medication. None were taking opioids. They were on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Bayer), aspirin, or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Those taking these drugs could continue to do so, but weren’t allowed to take part in any dramatic lifestyle changes. After three weeks, those in the placebo group reported a 9% reduction in usual pain, a 16% reduction in maximum pain, and a 29% reduction in disability related to pain. Kaptchuk said the body responds to the rituals we associate with medical care. But how did the patients feel about knowingly taking a placebo? Lead author on this study, Claudia Carvalho, PhD, said that rather than feeling lied to, the patients felt empowered, as they felt like they were taking part in a cutting-edge approach.
Kaptchuk says that placebos can’t replace every medication. It can help with symptom control for things like nausea, pain, or fatigue. But it won’t help with cancer, atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), or high cholesterol, among other maladies. More studies are being conducted by Kaptchuk to help us further understand how the placebo effect might be used in palliative care—to treat symptoms.
Kaptchuk said, “Our hope is that in conditions where the open-label placebo might be valuable, instead of putting people on drugs immediately — for depression, chronic pain, fatigue — that people would be put on placebo.” He added, “If it works, great. If not, then go on to drugs.”
To learn about the genetic component of the placebo effect, click here:
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Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Is focusing solely on body mass index the best way for doctor to frame obesity?
- New guidelines published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argue that obesity should be defined as a condition that involves high body mass index along with a corresponding physical or mental health condition.
- The guidelines note that classifying obesity by body mass index alone may lead to fat shaming or non-optimal treatments.
- The guidelines offer five steps for reframing the way doctors treat obesity.