The Dark Side of Placebo – Pt. 1

The Dark Side of Placebo – Pt. 1

You don’t have to be a healthcare practitioner to have heard of the term “placebo”. I would wager a guess and say most people have, at least, a basic understanding of what placebo means. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to tell you what it means in the context of research: a treatment administered which is known to have no direct effect on the outcome a researcher is measuring. For example, giving someone a sugar cube to lower their blood pressure. In a tiny quantity, sugar shouldn’t have a measurable effect on blood pressure – so what’s sometimes surprising is what happens after taking the placebo. When measured in large groups there is almost always a certain amount of improvement that comes after taking a placebo – this change is known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect describes an amount of change that happens because something is being treated regardless of whether or not the treatment itself is effective, or even technically works at all.

The thing about working in a clinic like ours is that we don’t administer medications, and we don’t administer sugar pills. But there’s something that’s like placebo with a little more nuance – known as “contextual effects.” When you come to see us in clinic, there’s so much more than just walking in, receiving your treatment, then walking out. There’s context surrounding your entire visit, there’s purpose, thoughts, and emotions. Maybe it’s your first time visiting a chiropractor and maybe that makes you nervous. Maybe you’ve just moved to town and you’re seeing if we can continue treatment you’ve already received elsewhere – and maybe that’s exciting.

The idea that I want to highlight here is the little things like that feeling of being excited. It’s a little piece of context that puts your visit to our clinic into a bigger picture. The thing is that these little pieces of context can have an impact on how much our treatments can help you. These contextual effects aren’t like placebo – they’re not administered to you for the sake of mimicking a treatment, but I hope I’ve painted the picture well enough to show you how they’re similar.

There are a lot of ways to try and take advantage of these contextual effects of treatment, and we try and do a lot of these things before you even step into our clinic. We make booking an appointment easy – you can call us, email us, message us, or even just do it yourself. We send you the paperwork ahead of time – so that we can focus on the good stuff when you’re here with us in person. Then, when you’ve arrived, we try to be there with a smile and a friendly greeting. We set out our agenda for the appointment at the very beginning and try to make sure you understand what’s happening while it’s happening. From the moment you step into our door, until the moment you step out, we do our best to put context around your visit so that it’s as smooth as possible for you.

You might be wondering – “Theo what the heck are you talking about? Why does this matter?” It matters to us because I want to talk about how there’s 100 different ways to make you feel better – and 99 of them aren’t the adjustment in your low back or the soft tissue therapy in your neck. I think of it quite plainly like this: the words we use and the things we do matter. And, as much as the nice little things we do can help you feel better, there are things that people say that can inadvertently make you feel worse – and that’s what I wanted to talk about for my next post, so stay tuned!


Picture of Theo Ramsdale

Theo Ramsdale

Chiropractor & Owner of The Wellness Zone

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