Suffering from pain or inflammation? If you lived in the late 18th century, you might have found relief with Perkins Tractors. They were sold as medical devices made from special materials, but were actually just two simple metal rods made from steel and brass. Dr. Elisha Perkins, the inventor of Perkins Tractors, said that the rods healed people by removing unhealthy electromagnetic fluids.
The Connecticut Medical Society said his invention was a sham, but Perkins found believers around the country. The first president of the United States, George Washington, even bought a set of the expensive rods. Perkins claimed to have cured 5,000 patients. His invention soon spread to Europe.
British doctor, John Haygarth, was skeptical. After Perkins’ death, he decided to put his invention to the test. He made copies of the rods made from wood and tested them with five people suffering from joint and muscle pain. Four out of five of them reported feeling better. The next day, Haygarth tested the actual Perkins Tractors, and the results were the same. Haygarth then said, “Such is the wonderful force of the Imagination!”
Today placebos are taken for granted. Researchers regularly test new medicines against placebos, not because placebos don’t work, but because they do.
But how do they work? The placebo effect is sometimes defined as the effect of an inert pill, but Harvard researcher Ted Kaptchuk says that’s an oxymoron. If something is inert, it has no effect.
Kaptchuk points out that the placebo effect is at play with real medicines, too. When patients are given morphine without their knowledge, it is 50 percent less effective. They need twice the amount of medicine to experience the same pain relief as someone who knows they are getting morphine.
Somehow, the experience of knowingly receiving the medicine makes it more effective. He doesn’t believe that this boils down to simply the power of belief. He says that a better way to think of placebos is the water that “real” medicine swims in. This water includes rituals, symbols, and doctor-patient encounters.
Kaptchuk has been researching placebos for decades. One thing that bothered him about placebos was tricking people. In 2009, he took 80 patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and gave half of them a placebo and half of them no treatment at all. Unlike most placebo research, he used no deception. He made sure that the 40 placebo patients understood that they were not getting real medicine. Despite this, the placebo patients reported improved symptoms.
When asked why a placebo can work even when people know it’s a placebo, Kaptchuk isn’t sure. But he does say, “this is deeper than, ‘I think I’m going to get better so I get better.”