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The Power of Suggestion

I’m not known for quoting Buddha, but I do like his statement, “We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think.” People really do underestimate the power of their mind. What we think will happen tends to be what actually does happen. We call these “self-fulfilling prophecies,” but in the medical world, they’re known as the “placebo effect” and the “nocebo effect.”

These terms are most commonly used in drug trials. Because the human mind is so powerful, it can transform the power of suggestion into physical results, and this outcome is important to differentiate from the actual effects of the drug. While one group of test subjects receives the experimental drug, another group receives only a “placebo” (a sugar pill or dummy pill that includes no drugs). Neither group knows whether they are receiving the actual drug or not, so any resulting effects can be more accurately judged. Therefore, any results found in the placebo group are attributed to either the placebo effect (if the subjects perceived beneficial changes) or nocebo effect (if the subjects perceived negative side effects).

Of course, the power of suggestion is alive and well in the outside world too. Those trendy bracelets that “balance you out” and “improve” your energy and flexibility? Sorry, that’s a placebo effect. The person with terrible allergies who starts to itch at the mere mention of cats? That’s a nocebo effect. In the Boston Marathon, Heartbreak Hill is the name of a short, 88 foot incline in the 20th mile of the course that has become infamous as a grueling climb where racers’ hearts are broken. I’ve no doubt that running up Heartbreak Hill after already traveling 20 miles is difficult, but I wonder if it doesn’t often FEEL harder simply because the runner knows it’s Heartbreak Hill?

For life in general, but especially when it comes to our health, it’s worth it to try to take a step back and be objective. Ask yourself, “Is this product/supplement/exercise program/etc. really as good (or as bad) as I think it is? What are the concrete, measurable results?” Don’t just judge the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of something by whether or not it FEELS as if it’s working. In our clinic, we take measurements of our patients’ abilities so that we can present them with proof of their progress. This is especially important if they begin to get discouraged. Then we can say, “Look, in three weeks, your range of motion has improved by 60 degrees! Your hard work is paying off!”

Every once in a while, I meet a patient for their very first appointment, and they’ll stubbornly declare, “This treatment isn’t going to do me any good! I don’t even know why I’m here!” This is always a difficult position for me. Even though I’ll do my best for this patient, they won’t experience their full recovery. Why? They’ve already decided they won’t, and there’s little I can do to combat that self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s a delicate balance to keep an open mind and yet not be fooled by every “new breakthrough” or “proven method.” Look for repeatable results that are grounded in numbers, and don’t let a placebo or nocebo effect keep you from achieving your best health. Keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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