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Do Placebo Pills Offer Physical and Psychological Benefits?

November 30, 2016
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The ingredients inside a placebo pill may be ineffective, but the pill itself may have real psychological impact. Recent research suggests that placebo pills are effective in the same way that Pavlov’s dogs learned that the sound of a bell means food, meaning, people associate pills with relief. A study in Lisbon, Portugal assigned two groups of patients one of two pills: the usual nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or a clearly labeled placebo pill. The patients were informed carefully that there were no ingredients in the placebo pill that could help with their pain. However, after three weeks, the results came in with interesting findings. The group assigned with NSAIDs experienced a 9 percent pain reduction whereas the group assigned a placebo pill experience a 30 percent pain reduction. This isn’t the first time that these results have appeared in a research study. A two-year old study done on 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experienced similar results—twice the amount of patients in the placebo group experienced a reduction in symptoms. A psychological response to taking a pill, or any other form of medicine, is at work in these studies. The ritual of taking a pill can activate a renewed sense of hope in the patient along with the natural capacity to control our pain. Even more, those who have taken the actual medications in the clinical trials didn’t experience any increasingly positive effects from the drugs over time. Compared to placebos, drugs only produce about nine percent more pain relief, which is down from 27 percent, the number reported in 1996. This poses a future problem for pharmaceutical companies. Once placebos are found to be more effective than the drugs that they produce it will become increasingly difficult to demonstrate that the actual drugs are better options.
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