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The placebo effect.

The placebo effect

You've probably heard or read about the placebo effect, but do you really understand what it is? What exactly does it mean when an article says, "The treatment showed some slight benefit, but it was due to the placebo effect."

The placebo effect is a scientifically proven phenomenon in which a person's symptoms improve after treatment with any substance the person believes will help. In the case of someone with arthritis, the treatment might be any one of a number of unproven remedies for arthritis, such as wearing a copper bracelet, sitting in an abandoned uranium mine, or rubbing WD-40 on affected joints. Or it might be an inactive substance such as a sugar pill.

Anything can be a placebo, whether it is a medically proven treatment or not. That's because a placebo's power to improve a person's symptoms does not lie in the treatment itself, but in the person's belief in the treatment. It may sound like voodoo science, but it's true!

The problem with the placebo effect is that since is benefits are due to the power of positive thinking, they tend to last for only a brief period. That can be dangerous when people abandon proven medical treatment for a remedy that seems to work, only to find that their improvement is due to the placebo effect and doesn't last. Meanwhile, irreversible joint damage may be taking place.

Placebos in the laboratory

It is largely because of the placebo effect that new drugs and treatments for arthritis or any other condition must be scientifically tested in double-blind, controlled studies. A controlled study is one in which a new drug or therapy is tested in two groups of subjects; one group receives the medication being tested and the other receives a placebo, usually a sugar pill. The beneficial effects of the medication must exceed those of the placebo to be considered of therapeutic value.

In such studies, neither the researchers nor the subjects know who is receiving the placebo and who is receiving the medication until after the study, making them "double-blind" studies. This insures that no one's biases will affect the results of the study.

Unproven remedies for arthritis are called "unproven" because that is exactly what they are-treatments that have not been shown in controlled, scientific studies to have a beneficial effect on arthritis. Therefore; any improvement people notice from these remedies may well be due to the placebo effect.

How does it work?

It has long been known that positive thinking can help people feel better. Scientists believe this is due to naturally occurring pain-relieving substances called endorphins that are released by the brain and spinal cord. Endorphins kill pain in much the same way as pain-relieving drugs. It's likely that placebos work by activating the body's endorphins.

So that's the "magic" behind the placebo effect. If you believe something will help you, it probably will, but the beneficial effects of a placebo are short-lived. So carefully scrutinize reports of new treatments for arthritis; if scientifically controlled studies to screen out the misleading benefits of the placebo effect haven't been conducted, take the results "with a grain of salt."

COPYRIGHT 1989 Arthritis Foundation, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arthritis Today
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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