By Adrian Sparrow
A placebo is a treatment that seems real to the participant but is itself inert and designed to have no therapeutic benefits. Placebos can be sugar pills, water or saline injections, and even complete procedures like fake acupuncture or surgery. Even though a placebo treatment has no active ingredients or interventions, it can still produce measurable physical effects.
How it Works
The placebo effect describes a positive change to a person’s physical or mental health as the result of taking a ‘dummy’ treatment. Researchers still don’t know exactly how the placebo effect works, but there are several theories.
-Simply believing in the treatment can reduce a participant’s anxiety, alter their perception of pain and trigger the release of endorphins (the body’s natural pain killer).
-The disease may resolve on its own (like the common cold) or go into remission (such as multiple sclerosis). The symptoms’ disappearance could be a coincidence rather than the effect of the intervention.
If a person’s symptoms disappear because of a placebo, this doesn’t mean their illness was fake. We know that stress can cause physical effects on the body, such as increased blood pressure and heart disease. If the mind can cause adverse physical symptoms, it can also create positive ones.
Placebos are used in clinical trials to understand the effectiveness of a new treatment. In early clinical trials, researchers measured the effects of a new drug on participants against people who didn’t take anything. After discovering that an empty tablet can produce a placebo effect, clinical trials now compare two groups who receive the same ‘treatment’- except one is fake, alongside a third group who receives nothing. Sometimes neither group knows which they will receive (for ethical reasons, participants are told they may be given a dummy treatment). In some trials, the researchers don’t know which group receives the real treatment, called a ‘double-blind’ test.
Comparing results between the two groups shows the effectiveness of the medication or if the new treatment is only as effective as the placebo.
Sometimes, clinical studies will openly tell the participants who are taking placebo medication. Despite being told, participants can still experience positive benefits from placebos. Feeling hopeful about a treatment, expecting relief, or simply the act of taking pills can lessen symptoms and cause measurable improvements. Anxiety disorders are particularly susceptible to placebos, suggesting that simply the act of treatment and care can be just as effective as many of these new drug interventions. Similar results have been found in antidepressants across a longer time period. But if the patient believes a medication will help ease their symptoms, in many tangible ways, it can.