A friend of mind once said it’s too bad we can’t bottle the placebo effect and sell it. In tests against pharmaceutical drugs – and other treatments, too – the placebo (usually a sugar pill) often performs better.
Now the idea of using placebos as a therapy is starting to shake things up among medical researchers.
This safe, cheap alternative to pricey prescriptions has now been proven useful for relieving back pain and migraines (and for pain relief in general). It also speeds recovery from surgery, eases anxiety, lifts depression, and occasionally relieves irritable bowel syndrome, hives, rhinitis, insomnia and other conditions.
Could placebos be the new miracle drug? Let’s take a look. . .
Placebos are what have often been called “dummy” pills. They don’t contain any medicine. In medical research the idea is that the participants in a drug trial don’t know whether they’re getting the drug — or nothing at all. That way researchers can tell if the changes they experience are “all in their heads.”
So how can placebos offer relief when they don’t include an “active” ingredient?
Good question. And researchers are frantically trying to figure out an answer.
Feeling Better With a “Dummy” Pill
In the past, researchers theorized that placebos helped people feel better because they were fooled into thinking the pills they took were real medicine. But lately scientists have learned something very strange: Even when people know they are taking a placebo, it still works!
For instance, research at the Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, Spain, found that when people with chronic low back pain knew they were being given placebos, the treatment still helped relieve their pain.1
The study included 97 back pain sufferers who had been in discomfort for three months or more. To test the power of the placebo, the researchers explained to these patients that placebos could have “potentially powerful” effects and that their bodies could, through some sort of automatic “non-conscious processes,” respond favorably to the placebo.
The research also compared the benefits of placebos to the usual pain medications.
At the end, the investigators found that placebos beat out the standard medications for back pain relief. Plus, they were also significantly better at reducing back pain-related disability.
The researchers report that the placebo treatment lowered pain and disability by about 30 percent. People in the study who used the usual, standard treatment for back pain didn’t experience significant help until they, too, were given placebos!
Placebos Produce Results
A widening array of studies are proving the value of placebo treatment:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): A study of 80 women with IBS showed that placebo offered significant relief when the women were given a “persuasive rationale” for taking the inert substance that “contained no medication.”2
- General pain relief: A test at Harvard shows that a placebo cream can offer relief from pain on the skin.3
- Undoing stuffy noses and upper respiratory discomfort: A study at the Cleveland Clinic found that placebo treatment could be used to treat allergic rhinitis and other breathing problems.4
- Improving recovery from heart surgery: Research in Germany shows that after heart surgery, the patients who got placebo support recovered faster and were still doing better than other patients six months after their operations.5
- Banishing insomnia: Investigators at the University of Austria found that placebo treatment with a make-believe form of neurofeedback was just as effective at helping people sleep as genuine neurofeedback.6
- Easing anxiety and depression: A joint review study at Harvard and the University of Basel found that, in children and adolescents, while placebos don’t work quite as well as medications, they are much safer in most cases because of the lack of side effects.7
Meanwhile, researchers are still arguing over what exactly happens in the body when you take a placebo. One study seems to show that how well you respond to a placebo may depend on your genetics.
Scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston say that their research shows that people with a certain genetic makeup (what they call the “placebome,” a term inspired by “genome”) respond more strongly to placebos than do other individuals. The mechanism in the body causing this difference, say the researchers, seems to be the way in which these genes influence the release of certain neurotransmitters.8
They also believe it’s possible that in some instances placebos and drugs stimulate the same brain pathways – and this might, in certain circumstances, lead to similar effects.
In any case, the scientists believe a lot more research is needed to fully understand how placebos work.
And there’s another interesting wrinkle in the placebo saga. Research shows that in the US, but apparently not in other countries, the placebo effect is getting stronger.9 Researchers think this might be due to the fact that we are one of only two countries that allow pharmaceutical ads on TV. (The other is New Zealand.) Those commercials, which stress how taking a pill can cure an ill, may be making us more inclined to accept that any pill – even one without a medication in it – can help us feel better.