Why do placebos work?

I’m reposting this item from Sharon Frey, Media Manager for the Christian Science Church in Boston, USA. Thought-provoking stuff!

Some scientists are digging into a fascinating question – why do sugar cubes have an effect?

In a blog network that highlights diverse perspectives on science and medicine, Steve Silberman wrote an interesting piece called Meet the Ethical Placebo: A Story that Heals.  He discusses a study showing that some patients who take sugar pills, even when they are told they are taking sugar pills, get better.

Some of these scientists have decided that this effect should be studied, instead of just being thought of as a “statistical distraction,” as many pharmaceutical companies may have considered them.

So, back to the original question: why do placebos work? Silberman says, “The precise nature of the placebo effect is shaped largely by patients’ expectations.”

To me, it sounds like the mental nature of health is now being observed in these clinical trials. This is intriguing, and I’m interested to see that these scientists are drilling deeper into what’s behind cause and effect with placebos. Another finding is that the level of support and confidence a health care provider has with the patient and his or her situation has an effect on healing.

Why would a supportive environment matter if there wasn’t a mental nature to health? It wouldn’t. And why would patients’ expectations matter either? I’m looking forward to seeing what these scientists find next.

Since Sharon wrote the above comment, research is finding patients’ negative expectations reduce the effectiveness of drugs – now called the ‘nocebo effect’. Check out this article on CTV “Negative thinking can stop painkillers from working“.

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