Are Placebos Good for You?

Placebos, harmless substances that are often given to medical patients for their psychological benefit, have seen a lot of discussion in the last couple years. People want to know whether or not placebos have measurable benefits. Not only that, but the medical community has argued that using placebos in drug trials biases the results of those tests in favor of the drugs being tested. Are placebos good for people (or companies) to use?

Often administered in the form of sugar pills, injections, or a staged medical procedure, placebos are often given to unknowing patients. It is thought that this way, the patient’s belief in the placebo gives the fake treatment a greater effect. According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, the placebo effect is when someone is given a fake medicine or treatment in the hopes that the mind will be tricked into believing a real treatment is benefiting the patient.

In 2014, Science Translational Medicine published a research article about the effect of placebos on patients suffering from chronic migraines. For this article, three groups of people were studied. The first were given labeled drugstore medication, the second were given placebos that were labeled as such and the third group took no medication at all.

According to the article, compared to no treatment at all, “the placebo … accounted for more than 50 percent of the drug effect.”

However, while placebos appear to be an effective way to treat some patients, they can also be used in a more sinister way. Physician and author Ben Goldacre argues that the methods used by drug manufacturers in clinical trials, including the use of placebos on test groups, skew results in favor of the drug in question.

The Huffington Post calls this use of placebos a “problem that calls into question all sorts of psychological interventions,” including psychotherapy, and essentially states that alternative treatment for any ailment is “probably” ineffective in the face of prescribed medicine.

For many medical patients who may not want to actually take addictive pain medication or undergo a procedure that might help them deal with chronic pain, placebos could be a good solution. As for drug companies trying to cheat their way onto the market or into medical journals, the FDA keeps a close eye on which medications are actually approved. Placebos can be used for good or bad. What matters is that those who need specialized treatment are given the correct kind of help for their situation.

Story by
Megan Fairbanks

Photo By
Sharon McCutcheon Unsplash
 for SUU News