Is That A Sleeping Pill or a Sugar Pill?

I don't know whether this is good or bad, but the placebo effect apparently works.

According to fastcompany.com, "A growing body of research shows that treatments ranging from sugar pills to the 'ritual of medicine''really do improve patient health."

To Ted Kaptchuk, fastcompany.com reports, "the placebo effect is brought about by much more than sugar pills and saline injections. It's about the whole 'drama' or 'theater' of medicine--essentially the context of the encounter between patient and physician--as much as treatment itself."

The Web site credits Kapchuk, who heads Harvard's placebo program, for "investigating placebos . . . and expanding the scope of the field."

fastcompany.com quotes Kaptchuk, "The placebo effect is the effect of everything surrounding the fake pill, or the real pill. It's the compassion, trust, and care. It's the ritual and symbols. It's the doctor-patient interaction."

Looked at that way, maybe it's not so bad.  But I sure wouldn't want to be the patient in a cancer trial who doesn't get the real thing. 

Kaptchuk showed that the placebo effect could be effective even when patients knew the treatment was fake, and listed an experiment where the drug bottle had a big "placebo" label on it.  Though it was a small study, "the results seemed to indicate something profound: When patients want to get better, and believe that doctors are there to help them, good things happen," fastcompany reports.

Because of all the advances in neurobiology, researchers can now see inside the brain to figure out what's going on when we take placebos.  Neurobiology, a new science, helps to gauge what works and when. "Neuro-imaging has allowed researchers to look at whether there's a genetic basis for why some people seem more susceptible to placebo treatments than others," fastcompany.com notes.

Scarily, a new survey has found that doctors are already prescribing placebos in the U.K. Out of almost 800 doctors, "12% said they had used 'pure' placebo (sugar pills, saline injections) while 97% had used 'impure placebos' (prescribing drugs without scientific basis, like antibiotics for viruses),"  according to fastcompany.com.  But here's the really frightening part: more than three-quarters said they did so at least once a week, and many didn't have an ethical problem with deceiving patients if treatments were effective.

So can we expect a sugar pill for cancer in the coming years?  Researchers say not.  Placebos most likely will be used for things like headaches, back pain and urinary tract infections.  What does it matter if you get better?  But, as my husband likes to say, "The body cures itself."  If it doesn't, medicine -- placebo or otherwise -- probably won't help.

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