Culture Magazine

Placebos Work [annals of Mind and Body]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Gary Greenberg, New York Times Magazine, What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick?, November 7, 2018.
And after a quarter-century of hard work, they have abundant evidence to prove it. Give people a sugar pill, they have shown, and those patients — especially if they have one of the chronic, stress-related conditions that register the strongest placebo effects and if the treatment is delivered by someone in whom they have confidence — will improve. Tell someone a normal milkshake is a diet beverage, and his gut will respond as if the drink were low fat. Take athletes to the top of the Alps, put them on exercise machines and hook them to an oxygen tank, and they will perform better than when they are breathing room air — even if room air is all that’s in the tank. Wake a patient from surgery and tell him you’ve done an arthroscopic repair, and his knee gets better even if all you did was knock him out and put a couple of incisions in his skin. Give a drug a fancy name, and it works better than if you don’t.
You don’t even have to deceive the patients. You can hand a patient with irritable bowel syndrome a sugar pill, identify it as such and tell her that sugar pills are known to be effective when used as placebos, and she will get better, especially if you take the time to deliver that message with warmth and close attention. Depression, back pain, chemotherapy-related malaise, migraine, post-traumatic stress disorder: The list of conditions that respond to placebos — as well as they do to drugs, with some patients — is long and growing.
And it may not be a 'mere' psychological trick:
Aided by functional magnetic resonance imaging (f.M.R.I.) and other precise surveillance techniques, Kaptchuk and his colleagues have begun to elucidate an ensemble of biochemical processes that may finally account for how placebos work and why they are more effective for some people, and some disorders, than others. The molecules, in other words, appear to be emerging. And their emergence may reveal fundamental flaws in the way we understand the body’s healing mechanisms, and the way we evaluate whether more standard medical interventions in those processes work, or don’t. Long a useful foil for medical science, the placebo effect might soon represent a more fundamental challenge to it.
More in the article, which also goes into the history of the placebo effect.

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