The powerful placebo
Medical knowledge and treatments have advanced more quickly in the last 50 years than ever before, but the powerful effects of placebo treatments are still reported and are not fully understood.
Simply put, a placebo is a medicine or medical treatment that has no scientific evidence to back it up. The term often refers to the inactive treatments that are given to some subjects during clinical trials in order to compare effects of real medication with the fake or placebo.
A placebo effect occurs when a patient perceives a positive or negative effect from the placebo treatment.
This is a very important aspect to clinical trials because even if two medications are compared and are equally effective, it is still unknown whether either of them works better than a placebo.
Only when an active drug is compared to both a placebo and other similar medications will it be certain whether it is actually clinically effective.
Reports of placebo effects are unbelievably common in most areas of medical research and treatment. It is estimated that in psychiatric drug studies, between 20 and 50% of subjects who take a placebo report positive results. In other words, their psychiatric symptoms improve while on the fake medication. It is mystifying, but is a very real phenomenon.
Although the placebo effect is not fully understood, it has been attributed by some to be a testimony to the powers of the human mind. A positive effect is likely to occur if the person has a positive attitude and truly believes the treatment will work.
Placebo effects can be credited for much healing that occurred in ancient days before effective treatments were discovered.
Bloodletting is a good example of a therapy that was not beneficial, but that was widely used for many years. For many illnesses, doctors would bleed the patient to rid the body of diseased blood and many thought it was beneficial. It is now known that the practice of bloodletting is not only useless, but can also be harmful if the patient loses too much blood.
It is well known by medical scientists that psychological factors can change, modify or suppress the usual effects of a medication. In fact, studies have shown that initial effects sometimes depend more on the expectations of the patients than on the actual properties of the drugs.
In general, while positive placebo effects can be helpful, they are usually short-lived if the patient has a chronic, serious illness.
For example, people who are on placebo medications in depression trials may experience alleviation in their symptoms for a short time, but will probably experience another depressive episode unless they are on effective antidepressant medication.
Placebo treatments have been used for generations and will undoubtedly still serve to fill the gap for conditions that do not offer an acceptable treatment or that cannot be cured. Many people will turn to experimental or holistic remedies that may show some benefit, but have not been clinically proven.
Medications that have been scientifically tested through controlled clinical trials and compared with placebos are the only treatments that are classified as clinically effective. They have been proven to show positive effects that surpass and are more constant than any positive effects that may have been reported for placebo treatments.