The Placebo effect: Fact or fiction?
By 27 December 2016
You've probably heard of the placebo effect before: when something with no known therapeutic value makes us feel better. It is a great trick our mind plays on us. By believing and expecting something to work, it actually does. But what is weird is that the strength of the effect can differ, for some really strange reasons. For example, the same placebo can treat pain half as well as aspirin while at the same time treating pain half as well as morphine. Morphine is a much more powerful painkiller, but a placebo is half as effective as both?
Say a placebo will reduce pain, it reduces pain. But saying the same placebo increases pain will make it increase pain. Believing that a placebo will make you feel better, the placebo will make you feel better. Believing it won't, will have the opposite effect. Now placebos aren't just pills: they can be creams, injections, surgeries or drinks. You can even get placebo buttons. They don't actually do anything, but they make you feel like you are in control.
But not all placebos are equal. The effect of the placebo is bigger when the pill (or another form) itself is bigger. Or if you have two, instead of one. Or two once a day instead of one twice a day. A capsule would usually beat a pill and a syringe would usually beat a capsule. And anything that looks like a big science machine would outperform any of them. A plain pill works worse than a branded one, discounted pills works worse than a pricey one and even a pill in a plain box does worse than one in a fancy box. Placebos that are blue work best as downers and placebos that are red work better as uppers. Studies have shown that people that take meds on a regular basis are less likely to die than people who don't, even if those meds are all placebos!
You can even get addicted to placebos. In one study a group of women took placebos for more than 5 years. 40% of them suffered withdrawals afterwards. In fact, the effect of placebos can be so strong, that some people want them banned from sports. But how are you even going to test for that?
Placebos can even be bound to a specific location. For example, in Germany using a placebo to treat ulcers worked better than anywhere else in Europe. But using a placebo to treat hypertension in Germany doesn't work nearly as well as it does for surrounding countries.
Now remember that all of this is about comparing things that both have nothing medically effective in them, which goes to show that placebos aren't about what is in it but about the believes that we load onto it. Our minds create the medicine.
What is not
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