Why Placebos Work

CebocapShirley S. Wang reports on the increasing clinical use of placebos for the Wall Street Journal:

Say “placebo effect” and most people think of the boost they may get from a sugar pill simply because they believe it will work. But more and more research suggests there is more than a fleeting boost to be gained from placebos.

A particular mind-set or belief about one’s body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms as well as changes in appetite, brain chemicals and even vision, several recent studies have found, highlighting how fundamentally the mind and body are connected.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether people know they are getting a placebo and not a “real” treatment. One study demonstrated a strong placebo effect in subjects who were told they were getting a sugar pill with no active ingredient.

Placebo treatments are sometimes used in some clinical practices. In a 2008 survey of nearly 700 internists and rheumatologists published in the British Medical Journal, about half said they prescribe placebos on a regular basis. The most popular were over-the-counter painkillers and vitamins. Very few physicians said they relied on sugar pills or saline injections. The American Medical Association says a placebo can’t be given simply to soothe a difficult patient, and it can be used only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.

Researchers want to know more about how the placebo effect works, and how to increase and decrease it. A more powerful, longer-lasting placebo effect might be helpful in treating health conditions related to weight and metabolism…

[continues in the Wall Street Journal]

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  • Bobsmith

    Just look at the health/weightlifter supplement industry.  They have made a killing off stuff that don’t work.  I take that back… they do something, they  destroy the liver

  • Bobsmith

    Just look at the health/weightlifter supplement industry.  They have made a killing off stuff that don’t work.  I take that back… they do something, they  destroy the liver

  • Oneas Asum

    Here’s a thought:  is it the case that people who are more open-minded experience a better-than-average placebo effect (open-minded = more likely to believe that a placebo is real medicine)?  Given that certain psychedelics have been claimed to enhance open-mindedness (and I don’t actually know the peer-reviewed literature on this), it therefore would make for an interesting study to see whether they have any effect on the placebo effect.  If, in fact, they DO, then it would also be interesting to compare the effect of placebos on people who have taken psychedelics with certain actual drugs (e.g. for hypertension) on people who have NOT taken psychedelics.  I myself have not taken psychedelics, nor plan to; my interest here is purely academic.

    • TCPrimus

      Unless you dose people unknowingly, haven’t you pretty much eliminated the placebo part from the equation?

      • Oneas Asum

        I’m saying:  take two groups of people, both of which haven’t ever done psychedelics, and both of which have a condition for which psychedelics don’t produce a response by themselves (improvement in symptoms; perhaps hypertension).  Give one group psychedelics, and then wait a few weeks (for it to clear out of their system).  Then, give 1/3 of each group sham pills, 1/3 in each group real medicine, and 1/3 in each group no pills at all. Measure the responses.  

        Psychedelics either have an influence on the placebeo effect (for a specific condition like hypertension), or they don’t.  Can you suggest a better way of determining which is the case?

  • Oneas Asum

    Here’s a thought:  is it the case that people who are more open-minded experience a better-than-average placebo effect (open-minded = more likely to believe that a placebo is real medicine)?  Given that certain psychedelics have been claimed to enhance open-mindedness (and I don’t actually know the peer-reviewed literature on this), it therefore would make for an interesting study to see whether they have any effect on the placebo effect.  If, in fact, they DO, then it would be also be interesting to compare the effect of placebos on people who have taken psychedelics with certain actual drugs (e.g. for hypertension) on people who have NOT taken psychedelics.  I myself have not taken psychedelics, nor plan to; my interest here is purely academic.

  • TCPrimus

    Unless you dose people unknowingly, haven’t you pretty much eliminated the placebo part from the equation?

  • Oneas Asum

    I’m saying:  take two groups of people, both of which haven’t ever done psychedelics, and both of which have a condition for which psychedelics don’t produce a response by themselves (improvement in symptoms; perhaps hypertension).  Give one group psychedelics, and then wait a few weeks.  Then, give each group pills, half in each group of which are sham (placebo), half of which are real.  Measure the responses.  

    Psychedelics either have an influence on the placebeo effect (for a specific condition like hypertension), or they don’t.  Can you suggest a better way of determining which is the case?

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