Placebos are more powerful than we thought

The placebo has always been a vital part to experiments- making patients believe they are receiving a treatment but in reality they are really not having any medication. This creates a control group which allows experimenters to compare with the experiment group. This all works behind the idea that the placebo does not affect the subject. However, placebos are very powerful and the ‘placebo effect’ is a real thing. The placebo effect is when your body thinks you are taking the real the drug or treatment and reacts almost as if you had the real drug or treatment. Placebos are so powerful that people have even become addicted to them (Keogh 2011). This video  goes much deeper into the effects of placebos and I would suggest watching it.

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The ‘placebo effect’ lives on the fact that subjects believe they are actually receiving the real treatment. So what happens if you tell them that they are taking a pill full of sugar? You think that nothing would happen, but could the placebo be powerful enough to do the opposite? The study titled Open-label placebo treatment in chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial showed that placebos can even cause a change when the subject knows it is a placebo. The published abstract can be found here. The Science Explorer, thankfully, published an understandable non-scientist version. 97 individuals who all suffer from lower back pain were taken and entered into this 3 week study. The individuals were allowed to continue taking their pain medication, but they could not change their medication (or dosage) or make any lifestyle changes. Thus, the placebo group should have had no change in their level of pain. Before the experiment began, every individual involved had the placebo effect explained to them so they knew how it worked. The subjects knowing how the placebo effect worked should have helped to avoid the placebo effect happening even when patients knew they had a placebo. From this point, the 97 individuals were randomized into  treatment-as-usual (TAU) and open-label placebo (OLP). The subjects in the OLP group were given a bottle of pills labeled “placebo pills” and instructed to take two pills twice everyday. On the pill bottle it was explicitly clear that there were no active ingredients and the pills only contained microcrystalline cellulose.

3-weeks later, the experimenters had very interesting data. Subjects in the OLP group showed a 30% decrease in both usual and maximum pain. In the TAU group there was only a 9% decrease in usual pain and a 16% decrease in maximum pain.

What could have possible made a group taking a fake pill, that they knew was fake, have significant differences in pain levels. Ted Kaptchuk, one of the primary researches in the experiment, believes that participants were so involved in a treatment process, even though they knew nothing was being done, that they were able to show improvements. He believes that the process of going through treatment, even when none is being done, is influential enough to make the brain think that something is better. While it will never be possible to use a placebo to cure cancer or actually fix a problem, it does have the ability to make patients feel better- and that is a huge positive.

The data shows that the subjects taking the placebo had improvements and the researchers believe they have a mechanism to explain why this happens, so should people take placebos? I believe it really depends on the situation, and there is a situation that this could be extremely beneficial. For instance if a patient has an allergy to a medication (one that is not necessary for their survival but helps improve their symptoms) they could take the placebo and by the findings of this study, feel better. Of course more research needs to be done for a better conclusion to this subject, but there is really no negatives to putting it into practice. There is nothing lost, besides time and minimal money compared to other treatment methods, from implementing a placebo treatment. More research should be done, but in the meantime, it can be assumed that people will show improvements in certain areas if they go through a open-label placebo treatment.




1 thought on “Placebos are more powerful than we thought

  1. Hannah Gluck

    This was a very well written blog and I totally agree with using placebos. There are not negative side effects that come from these placebos so why not use them as real medications if they work? The placebo effect has been going on for years and was first noticed by Henry Beecher during World War II. So if giving a patient a placebo is all that is necessary to see positive outcomes then I think this could be even better than the actual drug. Real drugs often times come along with negative side effects that people often times just have to learn to deal with but a placebo would not have these. So as long as the patient believes they are receiving treatment and positive effects are seen then I definitely think that they should use that placebo as their actual medication. Overall it really does come down to the situation whether or not a placebo would work. Obviously we are not going to see the placebo effect work in all situations so in that case other drugs would be necessary. This is a great topic to discuss but personally I think that if the placebo works then stick with it!

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