The Power of the Placebo

A growing body of evidence supports the idea that placebos have real and lasting health benefits for patients.

A placebo is a pill or medicine prescribed more for psychological benefit than for any physiological effect. A common example is substituting a sugar pill for a traditional pharmaceutical to activate the body’s natural immune defenses. Placebos are most often used in clinical drug trials to assist researchers in creating control groups for new pharmaceuticals, but are also prescribed by doctors for treatment.

Studies on irritable bowel syndrome and migraines show reductions in pain and fewer, weaker symptoms even when the patients knew they were taking a placebo. In Parkinson’s disease trials, researchers found that substituting a placebo for real medication during the trial continued to ease symptoms as well. The researchers argue that the body becomes conditioned to trigger a response, and the placebo elicits that same biological recovery process. More and more findings suggest placebos can cause the brain to release chemicals such as endorphins that reduce and regulate pain.

Around half of doctors prescribe some form of placebo to their patients. A 2006 set of guidelines from the American Medical Association argued it was unethical to give patients a placebo without disclosure, but experts believe few doctors actually follow this.

Much of the neurobiological effects that placebos have on the brain are still unknown, but placebos appear to offer patients a new way to manage pain.

Read more here: “Why Placebos Really Work: The Latest Science” (Sumathi Reddy, WSJ)

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