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The power of belief to reduce pain and alter arteries

Dr Placebo
Last edited 21st September 2011

In a recent study involving 30 patients having a procedure to evaluate chest pain, researchers found that those who were told they were being given a pain-relieving drug reported a decrease in pain. They also showed a small narrowing of their heart vessels.

Participants were randomized to receive either a verbal suggestion about the potency of an injection or not. Both groups received a saline injection. The verbal suggestion was developed on hypnotherapeutic principles. They were told:

“Mrs./Mr. XYZ, we are now injecting a drug through the catheter which will widen your coronary vessels. This procedure will improve the blood flow in your heart. This drug is very effective and starts its action immediately. It is possible that you might feel some agreeable warmness or formication after only a few seconds.”

Placebos, including verbal suggestions, are often acknowledged to have ‘psychological’ effects that can be measured using ‘subjective’ outcomes such as pain. However, their benefits for ‘objective’ outcomes, including change in the artery diameter, have often been questioned. More generally, the study explodes the myth that there is a strict mind/body division. If placebos can affect the mind, then they affect the body, and vice versa - our minds and bodies are hopelessly intertwined. If our bodies are ill and we are bedridden we are unlikely to feel good. Conversely, our ‘body language’ often reveals our moods. Emotions can affect physical activity, and vice versa. To name just a few examples, reduced serotonin activity can cause depression, dopamine affects motivation (among other things), and noradrenaline affects arousal (in a general sense).

Caregivers might use the results of this and other related studies to boost the effects of the therapies they prescribe.

To be sure, the study was too small to be conclusive. At the same time it was sufficiently well conducted (randomized and double blind) to be very suggestive …

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