Have you ever heard of the placebo effect?
A placebo is a pill that has no medicinal value. It is essentially an “empty” medicine. A placebo is a substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new drugs. The placebo effect is that improvement in symptoms of medical research participants, despite their receiving only the placebo.
An interesting phenomenon is occurring in United States painkiller drug trials: the placebo effect is increasing. In fact, the placebo effect has gotten so high that many new drugs are not progressing to the next level of research, because their effectiveness at reducing pain does not significantly exceed the effectiveness of study participants who received the placebo.
Jeffrey Mogil, who directs the pain-genetics lab at McGill University in Montreal conducted analyses of 84 American clinical drugs that were used to treat neuropathy. These drug trials’ results were published between 1990 and 2013.
Mogil’s team discovered these amazing facts:
- Beginning in 1996, American study participants indicated that the drug being studied relieved their pain 27% more than a placebo.
- By 2013, American study participants indicated that the drug being studied relieved their pain just 9% more than a placebo.
Researchers are wondering why so many Americans receive nearly the same benefit from a placebo. It must be noted that the placebo effect in the US is significantly higher than other countries. Some possibilities include:
- American consumers are bombarded with drug advertisements promising beneficial results. This may encourage Americans to feel that pills will bring them relief.
- American drugs in the trial stage are often administered by a nurse as opposed to other nations’ less personal lab settings. The development of the relationship between the study participant and the nurse may increase the placebo effect.
- Just the act of taking a pill, even a placebo, may be triggering biological functions, specifically the release of endorphins, which dull pain.
A recent article in The New York Times discusses the usage of the placebo effect to help pain patients.
So many drugs are addictive or have potentially harmful side effects. Could placebo usage be the answer?
A drug trial of the painkiller Maxalt gave some interesting glimpses into the possible future of pain relief. Migraine sufferers were actually informed that they were receiving a placebo, and yet they experienced far more pain relief than those who received no placebos. This same study also showed that those who were told they were receiving a placebo but who actually received Maxalt reported less effective pain relief. And those who were told they were receiving Maxalt, but who were actually receiving a placebo, experienced greater pain relief. Fascinating!
Perhaps the act of receiving a placebo in a caring setting with a sympathetic health care professional delivering the placebo would be a good alternative for pain relief, one that causes no side effects and no dangers of addiction.
For those who wonder why anyone would consider taking a placebo, consider all of those women who utilize 28 day packs of birth control pills. The last seven days of the packet are placebo pills and the women are told that. But the makers and the women agree to take these sham pills, because the most important component of oral birth control methods is taking the pill daily without fail. For women who wish to prevent pregnancy, a daily fake pill that keeps her routine the same every day is worth the ruse.
For further reading:
“A Placebo Treatment for Pain”, published in The New York Times, January 10, 2016