On the thankfully rare occasions I have to take a painkiller, I give myself a little pep talk before I swallow them. I tell myself that I will soon start to feel the impact, and then I imagine the chemicals surging through my system, doing good.
That’s not as weird as it may sound, and it’s something I’ve been doing since making a science documentary where we showed that you can reduce back pain using nothing more than the power of the mind.
Back pain is incredibly common. Ever since our ancient ancestors came down from the trees and decided it would be a good idea to walk upright, humans have been plagued by it. As we’ve got older, fatter and less active, rates have soared.
On the thankfully rare occasions I have to take a painkiller, I give myself a little pep talk before I swallow them
Lockdown hasn’t helped. Working from home crouched over computers, or lounging for hours on sofas, has had a bad effect. In fact, more than half of those who responded to a recent survey by the Institute of Employment Studies said they experienced back pain at least once a week.
Prevention is obviously better than cure, but what if you already suffer from chronic back pain? Well, there is an approach that is very cheap and works almost as well as painkillers, and is virtually side-effect free.
It involves tapping into the power of the placebo effect. Oddly enough, it can work even if you know you’re taking a placebo.
While placebos usually come in pill form (with no active ingredients), some patients have benefited from placebo surgery — where, as part of a trial, they were anaesthetised and cut open, but then the surgeon did nothing more than sew them up.
I first became interested in their powerful treatment potential a couple of years ago when making a documentary on back pain.
Summer’s truly over, but by now your vitamin D levels should be well topped up — the ‘sunshine vitamin’, as it’s known, is produced in our skin in response to sunlight, and from late March to the end of September most people have enough from being outdoors.
Yet during the making of my recent TV series, Lose A Stone In 21 Days, where I helped people shed their ‘lockdown pounds’, I was startled to discover that most of our volunteers’ levels of vitamin D were low, or borderline.
I shouldn’t have been surprised because vitamin D is stored in fatty tissue, so people with obesity tend to have less vitamin D circulating in their blood. But it’s worrying because vitamin D is essential for a healthy immune system.
Two recent studies have highlighted its potential significance in Covid-19 — those hospitalised with the infection who have low levels of vitamin D are more likely to suffer life-threatening complications or die.
Unfortunately, you can’t tell, without a blood test, whether your levels are healthy.
Current advice is that everyone should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D during the autumn and winter months. And this year that advice seems particularly pertinent.
To test the power of the placebo effect in everyday life, we recruited more than 100 people from Blackpool (a town where one in five people is blighted by back problems), all of whom had suffered chronic back pain for years.
The recruits were told they were taking part in a trial during which they might get a placebo or a powerful new painkiller.
What they weren’t told was that they’d all receive placebos, capsules containing only ground rice.
The experiment, carefully designed by Dr Jeremy Howick of Oxford