The Placebo Effect May Not Be BS And That’s A Good Thing


The placebo effect isn’t a new concept. We’ve used placebos for more than 200 years, and their original function wasn’t to provide a control in a study, but rather to satisfy a patient’s demands and expectations. Some doctors today are reverting to this 18th-century practice, but with open-label placebos, informing their patients that they are basically accepting a prescription for a sugar pill. And in quite a few instances, it’s actually working.

Peer-reviewed studies link open-label placebo use to relief from depressive disorders, chronic lower back pain and even irritable bowel syndrome. Scientists who study them assert that placebo efficacy is limited to certain health conditions, but when the factors align, the study participants experience very real results. Research suggests that what a patient thinks will happen when they take medication is an integral part of the placebo effect, but it turns out that also holds true even when we know there’s no magical power hidden underneath that pill coating.

And that matters a great deal.


Now, of course, there are plenty of haters out there complaining that these findings are a bunch of bunk and that people who knowingly take placebos to experience the relief they need are somehow inferior. But if the sugar pills are helping people feel better, why does it even matter that they’re sugar pills? There’s no risk in taking them (as opposed to popping real chemicals more and more often hoping for an improvement). They’re not expensive to produce. Patients are completely informed of the treatment they are (or aren’t) receiving. And they’re walking out of their doctors’ offices with a renewed sense of confidence in the care they’re receiving.

The average person doesn’t have a tremendous amount of faith in his or her doctors or the natural healing abilities of the human body. They do, however, believe in what a pill can accomplish. So if you can give someone a truly harmless prescription, give them a controlled and reasonable routine for taking the pills, and offer a sense of stress and anxiety relief in that they are doing something to help themselves, positive things are likely to happen.

Sure, it sounds strange, and it’s easy to doubt the validity of the findings. But who the hell cares? One man’s opinion is often irrelevant for another man’s happiness. If you think open-label placebo pills are dumb, then don’t take them. But if an open-label placebo makes someone feel better, what’s it matter to anyone else that it’s technically a sugar pill? It’s providing relief, which is the entire point of medical care anyway. Just let ’em live.