Tags: placebo | effect | treat | patients | symptoms

Should Placebos Be Used to Treat Patients?

By    |   Thursday, 02 Jul 2015 02:37 PM


The placebo effect is real. Fake cures — placebos — have been used for centuries to ease pain and other symptoms, and they are used in clinical trials as the base line for testing new drugs.

Many studies have proven that people's symptoms can actually improve after being given an inactive pill simply because they believe they are taking an effective drug. A study released earlier this year found that in addition to feeling better, the brains of Parkinson's patients taking a placebo actually changed.

But should doctors prescribe placebos to patients as a part of their medical practice? Harvard Medical School professor Ted Kaptchuk says "yes."

"A significant body of research has resulted in a shift from thinking of placebos as just 'dummy' treatments to recognizing that placebo effects encompass numerous aspects of the health care experience and are central to medicine and patient care," Kaptchuk wrote in an editorial published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The placebo effect, says Kaptchuck, is "at the core of what makes medicine a healthy profession.

"Placebos don’t necessarily provide cures, but they provide relief. In medical situations in which no cure is available, supportive and attentive health care can help patients to feel better, and when effective drugs do exist, placebo effects can enhance their impact."

While fake pills can dramatically increase the effectiveness of prescribed medications, Kaptchuck says the placebo effect also includes patients' responses to medical symbols, such as diplomas, and patient-physician interactions.

"Recent scientific advances have enabled us to identify a trove of neurotransmitters and detect relevant neural brain pathways as well as genetic markers that help explain the biology of the placebo effect," said Kaptchuk.

"The science of placebo effects is gaining traction worldwide,” said Kaptchuk. “Placebo effects occur when patients are immersed in the emotional circumstances of illness, and their brains unleash chemicals that help to modulate their symptoms and change the experience of illness."

Kaptchuk says all aspects of the placebo effect, including symbols and encounters with medical professionals are valuable and are "foundational to medicine as a healing profession.”


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The placebo effect is real. Fake cures - placebos - have been used for centuries to ease pain and other symptoms, and they are used in clinical trials as the base line for testing new drugs. Many studies have proven that people's symptoms can actually improve after being...
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