The Placebo Effect
Last updated: June 2023
Our minds are really amazing. They can make us believe we’re not in pain when we should be or that we are in pain/danger when we’re not. I really believe in the power of distraction. It was my first defense against sickle cell crises when I was younger. My brother would distract me with a game or activity and somehow, I would forget I was in pain – crazy right? But it makes a lot of sense if you think about something called the placebo effect.
What is it?
The placebo effect as defined by the NIH is a “beneficial health outcome resulting from a person’s anticipation that an intervention will help.” But I like to think of it as a mind trick. Have you ever noticed, the second you attend to something that’s bothering you, you start to feel a little better? It’s like getting a paper cut and not realizing it until you see the cut and recognize it as painful. Maybe that’s just how long it took your brain to process that the cut happened and it hurt. But then, you put a bandage on or clean it off and start to feel better.1
For me, it’s when I start to feel pain and turn my heat pad on, take a sip of water, or take my medicine. I feel better almost the instant I can feel the warmth of my heating pad, my thirst quenched, or know I’ve swallowed my medicine. But again, that doesn’t really make sense or seem possible. Especially for the case of medicine. Most pain medications just mask pain by altering the communication of pain in your brain – super cool but it takes 20- 30 minutes for the effect to kick in so why do I feel better instantly?
I think that’s where the placebo effect or the mind game begins. Just by telling myself, oh I took my medicine I’m going to feel better now, I start to believe it and actually feel better. That’s how powerful the words we say to ourselves can be – so be careful how you talk to yourself. Of course, there are limitations to the placebo effect. There is a line where things are too severe for this trick to work.
There have been times where I was afraid of taking medicine for fear of becoming addicted or the side effects. But I realized those fears were put onto me by society and the reality was that I could safely take pain meds if I closely followed my doctor’s instructions and let them know about all my medications and their effects on me as they happened.
What does it mean for you?
So how do we as sickle cell warriors use the placebo effect to our benefit? When dealing with pain crises or even our everyday lives. It’s all about how we talk to ourselves and what we allow ourselves to believe. It’s kind of like manifesting the outcomes we want to see, which I am a big fan of. This is of course easier said than done, but it might not hurt to try. And of course, it is always important to know when things are not working and more help is required – like taking some pain medication or going to the hospital.
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