04:48am Tuesday 19 November 2019

New evidence about the efficacy of placebos

“Most people still think of placebo as an effect which occurs in some people when they receive a sham or dummy treatment, usually when studying the effectiveness of a new treatment. But we’ve moved past that,” said Damien Finniss from the University of Sydney’s Pain Management Research Institute (PMRI) at Royal North Shore Hospital, who led a team of international experts in a landmark paper recently published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet (Friday, 19 February).

“This new research shows that placebo effects may occur in conjunction with any form of treatment, when the mind-brain interaction works to promote the body’s natural healing mechanisms.”

The research project brought together the world’s scientific papers on research into placebo effects and studied how they have an impact on patients.

“You don’t need a sugar pill to create a placebo effect. Our research reveals that placebo effects can occur in routine medical practice across a wide range of medical conditions – and these effects can be therapeutically powerful. Clearly there is a great deal more to placebo than we previously thought.”

The effects of placebo are many, ranging from the reduction of persistant pain to improvement of movement in Parkinson’s disease patients. Placebo effects can make routine treatments of any kind more effective, and we can all be responders.

“Essentially, placebo effects change the way our brains and bodies work, complementing the effects of medical or other therapeutic treatments, often leading to reduction in symptoms.”

“The placebo component of every therapy should not be over-looked. It has the potential to make routine medical treatments more effective,” said Finniss.

The next task for researchers is to better understand the many factors that drive placebo effects and attempt to exploit them in routine practice.

“What we do know is that placebo effects are influenced by the context or treatment environment – for example, the patient’s expectations and beliefs about the therapy, past experiences and many factors in the doctor-patient relationship all seem to contribute. We just need to learn how to pinpoint them and maximise them.”

The concept has positive implications for the one-in-five Australians who suffer from persisting pain. The world-leading University of Sydney Pain Management Research Institute at Royal North Shore Hospital is at the forefront of research on the disease processes involved in persisting pain and is investigating a variety of treatment strategies for the management of pain.

“Understanding how placebo works is one avenue for better understanding the physiology and psychology of the mind-brain-body interaction and how this may be harnessed to help sufferers of pain and other medical diseases,” said internationally renowned pain specialist Professor Michael Cousins, head of the PMRI.

Media inquiries: Sarah Stock, 0419 278 715 or Damien Finniss 0412 742 710.

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