NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Why Placebos Work Wonders

January 13, 2012

While the "placebo effect" is often excused as a psychological trick employed in medicinal trials, more and more research suggests there is more than a fleeting boost to be gained from placebos.  A particular mindset or belief about one's body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms as well as changes in appetite, brain chemicals and even vision, several recent studies have found, highlighting how fundamentally the mind and body are connected, says the Wall Street Journal.

The efficacy of the placebo effect has been found to have a number of interesting impacts in medicinal trials.  First, placebo effects can cause actual medicine to appear less effective, as occurred in a recent study of fertility rates in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome.

  • In the randomized trial, a full 15 percent of women who were using the placebo alone were able to get pregnant within the duration of the study.
  • For those who were on the actual drug, there was only a slight improvement over the placebo (22 percent).
  • This has the effect of making a drug that might actually be effective appear to be negligible in its patient outcome (22 percent, in this case, was not statistically different from 15 percent).

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the effectiveness of placebos in almost every instance in which they have an impact.  In the aforementioned case of fertility trials, it was suggested that by receiving a placebo, women became less stressed -- a condition that is more conducive to fertility.

In some cases, placebos have actually proven stronger than the medicine itself, as occurred in a 2007 study of women with menopause.

  • One hundred and three women who had menopausal hot flashes got either five weeks of real acupuncture, or five weeks of sham acupuncture.
  • Seven weeks post-treatment, 55 percent of patients in the sham acupuncture group reported hot flashes, compared with the 73 percent in the real acupuncture group.

Source: Shirley S. Wang, "Why Placebos Work Wonders," Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2012.

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