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Placebo Effect and Treatment of Human Physiology

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“It’s all in your head”. For the most part, yes. The placebo phenomenon, one of the intangibles of medicine, has made the heads of many spin for thousands of years, but the truth is, it’s as simple as “it’s all in your head”. Placebo treatment is any medical treatment, which could be an inert pill, shot or procedure, with an inoperative substance like sugar, water or saline solution that can, from time to time, improve the condition of a patient simply because they believe it’s helping them. 

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That’s the “placebo effect”, where the condition of a patient is improved by ineffective treatment. Just like a child feeling comforted after receiving a plaster, there’s no medical reason behind this sensation. Placebos can only affect what the brain can modulate; It’s not going to rid a person of cancer or influence skyrocketing blood sugar levels. These are things that don’t happen on the level of the brain. It’s hard for our brains to change our physiology but easy to change how we feel which is why placebo treatments have shown to improve symptoms of chronic conditions which are among the most difficult doctors to treat. Symptoms like pain, fatigue and nausea, the things that are modulated by the brain and pester patients the most. The process is a normal one, the exact same as any doctor-patient encounter. It’s basically the “water that medicine swims in”. This mystery of pseudoscience can change the way people experience illness and should be used more widely.

Firstly, Placebo treatments complement real drugs! Morphine administered without a person knowing, inconspicuously , in an IV drip is 50 percent less effective than when administered in front of them. That’s the placebo effect. Without doubt, what the mind perceives are the procedures and symbols of medicine, a compassionate doctor, the direct effect of the actual medicine plays a minor part. However, even when patients are aware of the fact that they have been given a placebo, there are still positive outcomes . A 2018 study in scientific review discovered that fatigue in cancer survivors can be reduced through the use of an open-label placebo. 

By comparing the open-label placebo treatment to treatment as usual for cancer survivors , the researchers discovered that the placebo group stated at 29% improvement in fatigue severity and a 39% enhancement in fatigue-disrupted quality of life in comparison to those following treatment as usual. And that’s substantially down to fact that the act of taking the medication itself makes people feel safe and supported, like their condition is going to improve For every reason you take a drug, whether it’s to deal with pain so bad that you wish a piano would just fall from the heavens and crush you on the spot or to help ease off that toothache you got from munching on too much candy, the benefit that you’re going to get from it is considerably down to the placebo effect, which is a reason why this controversial miracle therapy should be used more widely.

Furthermore, placebo treatments are excellent for making patients feel cared for and are guaranteed to have no side effects. In today’s day and age, with limited access to a doctor and ample opportunity to search for anything on the internet, people like me and you just can’t resist but consult world renowned “Dr. Google” and reach a conclusion about an illness we don’t have. A quick google search of your symptoms: a mind-numbing headache, throbbing abdominal pain, a fiery temperature and Google has your diagnosis ready in the blink of an eye. Looks like you have pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis! 

This results in a person with festering anxiety consuming their mind, storming into the doctor’s office with a thermometer sticking out of their mouth, paracetamol in hand, demanding treatment. And how does a doctor tell their hypochondriac patient, who’s showing physical symptoms, with no medical reason because they’re so fixated on their illness, that they’re fine? Tell them to go home, there’s nothing wrong? Here’s where placebo treatments could work their magic. By handing out placebo medication It reassures the patient and calms them. This could help minimise the heightened symptoms of the illness, produced by the brain. Let’s think about self-medicating. Every day, there are people who have racked up the courage to go and see a doctor about something they feel is serious but end up leaving unsatisfied with no treatment to help them and often turn to their own devices to try and heal themselves . 

Self-medicating is almost equivalent to having complete access to your own IV drip, you administer your own dosage of medication whenever you feel pain. The adverse reactions of doing so , can be catastrophic . People can put their own lives at risk by mixing different medication that shouldn’t be mixed for safety reasons, taking inaccurate dosages, sufficient enough end in accidental overdose. Without the aid of your doctor and pharmacist working together to ensure your safety and health, your walking on thin ice, serious complications are around the corner and death isn’t too far. Instead of people becoming distressed and harmfully treating themselves, placebos should be handed out more widely to relieve patients and help them to be in a more calm , receptive state.

Finally, placebo treatments reduce drug dependency. A placebo painkiller can stimulate the release of endorphins in the brain, the exact same hormone that real pain-relieving drugs like morphine are designed to release. So basically, the placebo painkiller is working in the same biochemical pathway as the genuine drug. If parkinson’s patients take a placebo drug, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, the exact same neurotransmitter released when the real drug is take . The area of the brain, essential for managing pain demonstrates an increase in activity when a placebo is taken , regions of the spinal cord that react to pain demonstrate a decrease in activity when a placebo is taken. 

This suggests that either the impression of pain or our perception of it is dwindled under a placebo, placebos are indeed playing on the brain’s natural pain management circuitry. In each of these cases, we see biochemical changes that are actually very similar to the pathways that are employed by drugs. So, shouldn’t this extraordinary marvel treatment be used instead of prescribing expensive medication that more or less have the same effect? A 2016 study carried out by the American society of addiction medicine demonstrates that overdosing on drugs is the main cause of accidental death in the US. 

Of the 52,404 deaths due to drug overdose in the US in 2015, 20,101 deaths were associated with prescription painkillers whereas as only 12,990 deaths were associated with heroin. Harrowing right? More people died from prescription painkillers than an illegal drug! Imagine how many lives could have been saved if a simple sugar pill was used instead of highly addictive painkillers like opioids. Since some placebos and drugs work in tandem, placebos are better alternatives since they don’t contribute to drug toxicity in patients, which is why this method should be used on a larger scale.

To summarise, placebo treatments bring a wide variety of advantages to healthcare and therefore should be used more widely. The benefits these extraordinary treatments can bring to the medical field are invaluable. As well as accompanying real drugs, reducing drug dependency and reassuring patients, they are great therapeutic assets than can certainly change the way people experience illness. Illness doesn’t have to be a grueling cycle of toxic medication and treatments but a much more harmless, simpler experience. This miracle pill can restructure the mechanisms of medicine for the better and should unquestionably be introduced widely.     

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