The Key to Pain Relief: a placebo effect

Did you know your brain is both its own locksmith and its own pharmacist?

I’m going to start this blog post with a short story about my mum but I’ll make my point about science soon, so bear with me!

The Prada placebo

My mum and I really love textiles and clothing. On my last trip with my mum I asked to borrow a coat due to the cold temperatures and her much more varied closet than mine. She brings out a coat the colour of green peas with a bizarre mix of different buttons down the front and says, “It’s Prada”. Prada is a fancy clothing brand and my mum was testing me to see if I would like the coat just because she had told me it was a fancy brand. I told her I didn’t pa

rticularly like the coat even if it was Prada. It wasn’t.

Let me circle this back to science. My mum expected me to have a more favourable reaction to the coat (which wasn’t my style) just because the brand has reputation as well made. She was testing the placebo effect. A placebo is more commonly used in relation to medical treatments. It refers to a ‘medicine’ that has no medicinal ingredient but may produce a positive effect in patients because they are told it should have an effect.

Sugar pills. Image via Unsplash

Dr Tic Tac

This might seem similar to going to the doctor as a child and answering yes to every question the doctor asks because you want a day off of school. In fact the placebo effect isn’t trying to weed out the hypochondriac patients. The placebo is a real phenomenon that has been debunked as a myth by science.

When a doctor hands you a prescription for a medicine that is supposed to get rid of the extreme back pain you feel, of course you will feel hope and relief in anticipation of being pain free. Little do you know that your doctor has written down a fancy name for Tic Tacs. Yes this hypothetical doctor is terrible, but did you know you might actually experience pain relief?

Image via Matthew Schwartz on Unsplash

You are your own pharmacist

When you expect to be relieved of pain, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are similar in their chemical structure to opioid drugs like heroin and morphine. They are essentially all ‘keys’, or neurotransmitters, that have been cut in such a similar way that they unlock the same ‘doors’, or receptors, within the brain. When that door is unlocked your experience of pain is dulled. Each key, or chemical, dulls the pain to a different extent. This is why the placebo effect really does reduce pain.

Your anticipation of an effect from the Tic Tacs your doctor prescribed causes your brain to make its own diluted form of painkiller. Congratulations you are your own pharmacist! Your brain also releases another kind of chemical or key in anticipation, this one called dopamine. Dopamine unlocks the door within the reward part of the brain. This reduces your sensitivity to pain. You are now a pharmacist who can make two kinds of pain relievers, take that Nurofen.

Image via rawpixel on Unsplash

Are you cut out to be a good locksmith?

The spooky stuff doesn’t end there! Your genetics actually influence how much of a placebo you can get. Think of it like this: your genes either make your brain a good locksmith or a bad one. The locks within those doors mentioned above might either be cut really well and fit those keys perfectly or not so well. If the lock doesn’t fit then the pain relief isn’t as good.

Let’s hope our brains worked hard in their locksmith apprenticeships and made damned good locks in our pain relief doors!



For some more in depth info on the science behind the placebo check out these links:

One Response to “The Key to Pain Relief: a placebo effect”

  1. daisyh says:

    Cool topic! Placebos are always fascinating, sounds like I should predict pain more often (should be easy, exams are coming up).