The placebo effect is a natural human phenomenon in which an individual is given a false treatment, surgery, or medication while being told that it should cure symptoms associated with the experienced illness or disease. In this kind of medical intervention, it has been found that most patients who are told that their treatments will help them report that their condition has improved. While testing experimental drugs, it is not unlikely that patients who receive placebos experience improvement simply from the thought that they will feel better once undergoing treatment. An average of one-third of patients given a placebo instead of the drug that they were told they were taking will undergo results.
In order for companies to release their drugs onto the market, the FDA must approve of them. Many of these companies will compare the results of patients who took real drugs versus those who took placebos. In almost every case, there are a few patients who still get results from placebos, but the way these companies attempt to gain the approval of the FDA is by comparing the number of patients who experience results from placebos and those who experience results from the actual drug. If those who took the drug fare better than those who took the placebo, then the drug is deemed effective.
In certain cases, the efficiency of placebos allows for those who should not experience results without drugs to attain a positive outcome. In 1997, a Canadian test of a drug to reduce the size of the prostate was performed in which one half of the subjects took a drug and the other half took look-a-like placebos. Many of those who took placebos reported that their symptoms of an enlarged prostate had decreased. The doctors involved with this case claimed it made no medical sense for a placebo to have worked for these patients. Another outcome found in this placebo test was that the patients who received placebos claimed that they had experienced side effects from the “drug.” The occurrence of side effects while taking placebos is sometimes called the “nocebo” effect.
The placebo effect is not limited to pharmaceuticals, but reaches out to such procedures such as brain surgery and the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. In a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, two groups of patients underwent surgery to test if the placebo effect could take place. In one group of patients, holes were drilled into their head and human fetal tissue was inserted into the skull. The other group of patients had holes drilled into their head, but nothing else was done to them. The study is still ongoing and has not yet reached a conclusion as to whether or not those who received a sham surgery fared as well as those who did not. So far the results are too indecisive to even say if the placebo worked as well as the actual treatment after over five years of study.
More experiments and tests are performed each day, but the placebo has still shown itself to be effective even in cases in which positive results are not expected. Placebo pharmaceuticals are commonly made of a nonreactive substance such as sugar, distilled water, or saline solution. Even with the use of neutral substances, results are achieved and many patients are treated and even healed with the simple thought that taking what they are given will help them. These results obviously cannot be attributed to the substances within the placebo, but it is the mind that tells the body that it will become better. This does not by any means take place in all people nor all conditions, but it does show that the power of the mind should not be underestimated.
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