BLOCKING PAIN. Part V. The power of placebo

The power of suggestion can create “miracles” or can be used to rob you blind and steal your money. As a child, back in my homeland Greece, I became aware of a woman called Anastasia who did miracles with her “holy water”. She was front page on many newspapers, as the crowds camping outside her apartment balcony had witnessed the “power of God” creating signs on the woman’s body. She used to come on the balcony, turn her back to the crowds and lift her gown. Slowly but surely, in front of the believers’ eyes, thick wheels were formed in a letter shape in her back reading something like this: “Those who believe, will see” etc. The bottles of the “holy water” she had blessed were a hot and expensive item between the desperate for those who wanted a cure for themselves or their loved ones for conditions ranging from deafness, to paralysis and cancers.

And the deaf heard, the blind saw, the cancers were cured … for short periods of time, while “Saint Anastasia” was travelling the streets of Athens in her expensive Mercedes. People swore by the effectiveness of the holy water, until the Greek Ministry of Health commanded an investigation of the water. The holy potion proved to be good old water from the tap, while God’s writings on Anastasia’s back were nothing more than signs of dermographism. In this condition, slight pressure over the skin breaks down special tissue cells that are unusually fragile. As the cells break down, they release a substance that creates localized skin swelling. Anastasia’s accomplish used to “write” a message over her skin before she appears to the crowds. Within minutes the letters would pop-up, convincing the crowds of Anastasia’s special connection with the God. All her cures were nothing more than placebos which lasted for short periods of time.

So, what is the science behind the placebo effect? How does it block pain and so many other symptoms? The answer lies in on the chemicals that are missing in different conditions and are mobilized by the placebo effect. For example, our natural pain killers, the “endorphins”, block pain. Placebos mobilize our endorphins and relieve pain. In patients with Parkinson’ s disease who have tremors and rigidity, administration of a placebo drug releases the body’s own dopamine (the specific chemical missing in this disease), and the patients get better.

A word of caution: If you get better with a placebo drug or treatment, it does not necessarily mean “there is nothing wrong with you”. The placebo effect can block pain but not the underlying condition that causes pain. An example is that of an older woman, patient of mine, that I described in my book Beyond Pain. This lovely lady had a bad knee infection. She did not like her surgeon but adored me and my team. When I saw her walking with the help of one of my therapists, she looked very happy and told me her knee pain was all gone. My patient believed in me and my team, liked the care we provided her with and had full faith in my skills. Her expectations and beliefs mobilized her own endorphins and managed to block the pain temporarily. This did not cure her serious infection, and she needed later very aggressive treatment which helped her inflamed knee and her pain for good.