Placebos or “dummy pills” do work. When they do work placebos produce similar effects in the brain as the “real” drugs. This is not only the case for drugs but also surgery as well. Interestingly, in some cases “sham surgery” produces similar effects as actual surgery. The placebo effect seems to be especially potent in the American population. This may be due to the trust that Americans seem to have in traditional treatments and surgery.
In a film about the placebo effect an experiment was performed where bicyclists were given a placebo supplement pill that would supposedly enhance their performance. Up to half the racers road their bikes faster after receiving the fake “placebo” pill which was nothing more than corn flour.
A 2002 study of knee surgery revealed that fake surgery for knee arthritis worked just as well as the real surgery. According to the authors of the paper “the outcomes after arthroscopic lavage or arthroscopic debridement were no better than those after a placebo procedure.” This shows the power of our minds to heal us when we believe we should get better. Another study in 2013 found that knee surgery for degenerative meniscal tears also had no more benefit than “sham surgery”.
Anti-depressants are also on a long list of drugs that have minimal additional benefit above placebo.
The placebo effect works better when people believe a medicine or treatment is going to work. If people are skeptical than the affects are not as pronounced.
The appearance of a pill also makes a difference. Pills that are expensive, bigger in size, and come in capsules have a bigger placebo affect.
That being said this doesn't mean that the placebo effect is bad. Harnessing the placebo affect can potentially help a lot of people. In the future it may be that we are treated with placebo where no alternative exists.
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