November 07, 2007

Miracle Drug Pumps up Athletic Performance

What's this new wonder drug that helped athletes battle through painful workouts as though they couldn't feel a thing?

Oh gosh, it's not such a new drug after all: it's called a placebo.

Crabby never fails to find herself amused by the placebo effect, because it's sort of the Practical Joke of health and medical research. Yet it's also real and tremendously effective. Because we humans are so goofy, our expectations about what's going to happen are often way more powerful than any medication researchers are trying to test.

Anyway, this particular study (spotted by New Scientist) might be interesting to those who are competitive athletes or sports fans, because it seems to suggest a sneaky way around some of the anti-doping restrictions.

Basically, a group of Italian athletes underwent an artificially painful and unpleasant workout in the Name of Science (just like in yesterday's study, because apparently European researchers like to torture athletic young men just for giggles). The scientists timed how long these guys could "operate an exercise device while blood flow in their arm was restricted, making the exercise painful." But during two practice sessions (spaced a week apart), some got morphine injections. The morphine-doped men were able to exercise for longer.

Well, a week later the morphine group got a fake injection. And what happened? They still managed to exercise for longer, "seemingly oblivious to the pain."

The New Scientist article noted that World Anti-Doping Agency rules allow athlete to take opiate painkillers like morphine during training, but not on the day of a competition. And they suggest that this creates a Big Conundrum. Is it cheating to train an athlete with morphine, then use the placebo effect to give him a boost on the day of the competition?

Interesting question, kinda. Franky, Crabby doesn't really give a crap because she's not a huge fan of sports or competitive athletics. But many of you actually run races and go tearing around on bicycles and swim competitively and such, and some of you might have an opinion on whether this sort of thing should be kosher.

Crabby had a far more pressing question, but even when she went straight to the source, she couldn't find the answer. (Unfortunately, the source was greedy and wanted money, damn it, so she was stuck with just the abstract.) The question was about the "fake" morphine shot. It sounds, from the article, like the athletes thought they were getting morphine but didn't. Which is generally part of the placebo effect.

Well, if that's true, then how the heck is a trainer going to take advantage of it for real races?

Sneaky Trainer: All ready? The race starts soon, it's time for your shot!

Athlete: Whoa, dude, morphine on race day? Won't that disqualify me?

Sneaky Trainer: Uh, no--not at all! It's totally legal now for you to have morphine right before a race.

Athlete: Really? Awesome! Bring it on, I like that stuff!

Sneaky Trainer: Go get 'em tiger!

As an aside, Crabby is rarely able to take advantage of the placebo effect herself. She suspects it takes a more optimistic world view than she has. She expects pain pills and other remedies not to do much, and sure enough, they don't. She has always envied the Placebo People, who often tell her about the latest weird herbal remedy they just tried that totally fixed their chronic (whatever) problem. No doubt it will work for Crabby too!

It never does.

So is anyone else intrigued by the placebo effect? Are you susceptible? Or have any thoughts on doping in sports, or the gratuitous exercise-torture of young buffed male athletes?


  1. I think there needs to be a lot more research done on the Placebo effect. It's cool to think we could psych ourselves.
    Except -- can you psych yourself into a placebo? That seems like trying to tickle yourself. Why is it easier to believe someone else than to believe yourself?

    pqsjezrd - the sort of thing I am usually faced with when playing scrabble.

  2. Nah, placebos don't work for the Bag Lady. She has trouble believing the real stuff is working...
    Hey, my word verification looks like food maniac. How'd they know?

  3. Generally yes, the placebo effect works as long as you don't know it's a placebo.
    If those athletes think they're getting a banned substance on race day it just may have the opposite effect because they won't want to be tested.
    Your mind creates your reality. If you're told your going to have a great day, race, nap, whatever, then it happens if you believe it will happen.

  4. As a nurse, I have seen the placebo effect in action, physiologically and psychologically.

    Sadly, there is not enough research about the use of placebos to truly boost the body's own ability to help itself. And equally sad, is that there is not enough research about how real and severe pain can be even if it is deeemed to be all in one's head.

  5. I was originally taught that the placebo effect was a 'sugar pill' without real cause. Something to minimize in the search for the real truth. Now I think that, unless it would be dangerous due to time constraints, every person should try a 'placebo' before taking any 'real' drug! What could be better than the body healing itself with it's own internal resources? Of course the real solution would be to draw on these without the need to fool oneself. Perhaps, stressing the positive and diminishing the negative would be a good place to start. I think I have a song in there somewhere :-)
    Dr. J

  6. Well crap, I thought I just added a long comment and I came back and it's not here! And it's my own damn blog!

    Must have done the damn preview thing again and forgot to hit publish.

    Can you guys trust me that the individual responses I wrote were not all that interesting? I'd bore myself to death repeating them.

    Makes me so pqsjezrd off!

    I did the same thing on a couple other blogs yesterday--left comments that didn't appear.

    This time, no previewing. Or else I need a placebo memory pill to make myself remember to hit publish afterwards!

  7. Does placebo side effects count?!? I have side effects from taking meds that doctors keep assuring me can't be from the meds- but when I stop them, the side effects stop! Placebo side effects...

  8. I took two placebos before bed last night and woke up singing opera. I think that's called the Placebo Domingo effect.

  9. Har de har har, Hilary!!!!

    I was just going to say I take Sonata occasionally when I have trouble sleeping. But it has quite a good effect when it's just sitting there in the bedside table drawer. I read in the Times the other day where it's not supposed to be effective enough and only lasts for four hours, and so it shouldn't be prescribed. BS. It works great even when you don't take it. If it's a placebo don't anybody tell me.

  10. Well, Melissa you could try Hilary's Singing Placebo advice. Try Sinatra instead of Sonata, should work just fine.

    Though if you're like Emily you could get some Sinatra side effects... but a few mob buddies, fame, fortune and a handy rat pack ain't all bad.

  11. The human body is very strange. It would appear from the placebo effect that your expectations do alter your reality. What's interesting to me would be if you told those men from the experiment what really happened, could they then replicate the painless results just by expecting it or knowing they'd done it in the past.

    Can this be taken one step further and could a trainer tell an elite runner or cyclist that he had created a new training regimen that was guaranteed to make him faster and have those expectations create the result? Does there need to even be a placebo or do the raised expectations alone cause the results?

    As a runner that leads me to wondering how I can raise my expectations and believe that it will create this effect?

  12. But aren't they worried the athletes will become addicted to the placebo? After all they do think it is morphine ;)

  13. I just need a placebo to convince me to stay awake...zzzzzzzz

    "Addicted to placebos"! hehe

    My word verification is pixoiv - A Slavic elf?

  14. Suddenly I'm reminded of Starina's "Pirin" tablets.

  15. xbjsd

    I hate it when I don't get any vowels.

    Meanwhile, I just posted today about how I kept myself going through college in my mid-30s via using vitamins and herbal supplements. I have no idea if gingko really helped my brainpower, but I decided to believe it did and I got good grades so there ya go.


    (I got spammed too after only having my word verification off for less than 24 hours. Was yours from India advertising a verve earth thingy?)

  16. Did they at least give the young male athletes beer afterwards? ;)

    I feel like I am extremely susceptible to the placebo effect...I just hope by realizing it, it doesn't diminish the effects!

  17. like they say,
    mind over matter
    but seriously, i think it would only really know as long as the athlete in question doesn't know whats going on..
    and i doubt that regular morphine shots for training is good for the body.

  18. Really enjoying all the comments. but now I have an Important Announcement!

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    You'll all be feeling better any minute, just like you had a big huge shot of fake morphine!

  19. Wow! You scared everyone off! I guess we all just really want to be fat, lazy and, um..what were the other things you promised us???


    I think it is hilarious that everyone is listing their word verifications! Only on Crabby fitness!

  20. Feel it workin' Holly? The new secret miracle program will put the ogbyo right back in your boogie oogie oogie.

    Whatever the hell that means.

    (I noticed that your word verification triggered an ad in my gmail account for "Become a Zumba Instructor." I don't know what Zumba is but somehow it got the boogie oogie oogie song going through my head.)

    Thanks for not being scared away!

  21. The Bag Lady ain't afeared...oh, look, she's fading a cart-load!
    pnzyha - knew a guy who sneezed like that once...


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