Many people who experience relief from acupuncture or other modalities wonder if it was the treatment, or the placebo effect. My typical response is that I don’t care, so long as they feel better.
Much has been written about the Placebo Effect, and the article by Todd Hargrove which I’m attaching here has what I feel is a great explanation of it. Some text from the conclusion is below, and the full article may be read here.
The science of placebo is very interesting and informative. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a good degree of the success seen in movement-based therapies is through placebo-like effects, or through getting rid of nocebos. But I think the word placebo can be confusing. It refers to a wide variety of different phenomena that have different effects through different mechanisms.
Some placebo effects work through anxiety reduction, others through activation of the reward system, and others through descending inhibition of nociception. The common thread is they are all created by cognitive inputs – information that changes what the patient expects or believes about their health.
And this relates to another problem with the word placebo – it suggests that treatments which work through changes in client expectation are somehow inert, or ineffective, or not meaningful, or unethical, or even a scam. Of course this may very well be the case when the treatment is a sugar pill, or based on pseudoscience or quackery. In these instances, the clients’ expectations and beliefs are changed because they are deceived, and this is in most cases unethical.
But what if a treatment works primarily through changes in belief and expectation,but in a way that changes those beliefs to be more accurate? Consider the following scenarios, all of which might be described as involving placebo effects, but none of which involve deception:
- a client is given accurate information about the poor correlation between back pain and objective MRI findings. This lowers his anxiety and pain.
- a client is shown through passive and active movement that it is possible for her to bend forward without pain if she does so in a different manner. This reduces her anxiety, makes her expect benefit from therapy, and this reduces her pain.
- a client receives compassionate and empathetic treatment from a caring therapist. This lowers his anxiety, makes him expect benefit, and thereby reduces his pain.
- a client has had many past experiences with massage causing pain relief, and this learned association contributes to further pain relief from massage.
Are these all placebo effects? It is true that they all work in large part by changing the client’s beliefs. But that was the whole point of the treatment in the first place! So there should be no suggestion that the treatments are inert, ineffective or deceptive. Using the word placebo in these cases can be stigmatizing and confusing.
I prefer to look at it this way: pain results from perception of threat, and it can be treated by providing the client as much good news as possible about the threat in question.
Does this present an ethical issue? Only when that good news is built from lies and not the truth. Fortunately, I think there are many optimistic truths that clients can learn from therapists through touch, movement, and conversation.