By Raunak Haldipur
A placebo is anything that seems to be a real medical treatment but is not. It could be a pill, a shot, or some other type of treatment. What all placebos have in common is that they do not contain an active substance meant to affect health. However, people can have a response to taking a placebo, which can be positive or negative. For instance, a person’s symptoms may improve, or the person may have what appears to be side effects from the treatment. Placebos can even produce results when people know they are taking a placebo. These responses are known as the placebo effect.
Studies show that placebos can have an effect on conditions such as depression, pains, sleep disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and menopause. In one study involving asthma, people using a placebo inhaler did no better on breathing tests than by sitting and doing nothing. But when researchers asked for people’s perception of how they felt, the placebo inhaler was reported as being as effective as medicine in providing relief.
How are placebos used?
Researchers use placebos during studies to help them understand what effect a new drug or other treatment might have on a particular condition. For example, some people in a study might be given a new drug to lower cholesterol while others would only get a placebo. None of the people in the study will know if they got the real treatment or the placebo. Researchers then compare the effects of the drug and placebo on two groups. That way, they can determine the effectiveness of the new drug and check for side effects.
Research on the placebo effect itself has focused on the relationship between the mind and body. One of the most common theories is that the placebo effect is due to a person’s expectations. If a person expects a pill to do something, then it is possible that the body’s own chemistry can cause effects similar to what a real medication might have caused. For instance, in one study, people were given a placebo and told it was a stimulant. After taking the pill, their pulse rates sped up, their blood pressure increased, and their reaction speeds improved. When people were given the same pill and told it was to help them get to sleep, they experienced the opposite effects.
Are there any side effects of placebos?
Experts say that there is a relationship between how strongly a person expects to have results and whether or not results occur. The stronger the feeling, the more likely it is that a person will experience positive effects. There may be a profound effect due to the interaction between the patient and the healthcare provider. The same appears to be true for negative effects. If people expect to have side effects, such as headaches, nausea, or drowsiness, there is a greater chance of those reactions occurring.
The fact that the placebo effect is tied to expectations does not make it imaginary. Some studies show that there are actual physical changes that occur along with the placebo effect. For instance, some studies have documented an increase in the production of endorphins, one of the body’s natural pain relievers. However, one problem with the placebo effect is that it can be difficult to distinguish from the actual effects of a real drug during a study. Finding ways to distinguish between the placebo effect and the effects of formal treatments may help to improve medicines and lower the cost of drug testing.
Can placebos cure?
The mind can be a powerful healing tool when given the chance. The idea that the brain can convince the body that a placebo is a real treatment and thus stimulate the body to heal itself has been around for millennia. Now science has found that, under the right circumstances, a placebo can be just as effective as traditional treatments. “The placebo effect is more than positive thinking. It’s about believing a treatment or procedure will work. It’s about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together,” says Professor Ted Kaptchuk, of the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, whose research focuses on the placebo effect.
Placebos will not lower your cholesterol or shrink a tumor. Instead, they work on symptoms modulated by the brain, such as the perception of pain. “Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you,” says Kaptchuk. “They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea.” The evidence seems to show that placebos cannot cure everything, but they are effective in curing some things that formal medicines may not be able to cure.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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