Inside the Placebo Effect

How can an inert sugar pill have therapeutic value? The answer requires understanding the context that surrounds medical treatment – a setting in which the symbols and rituals of health care combine with the charged emotional reactions that arise when patients encounter healers.

BOSTON – For many medical researchers and followers of science, few things are more unsettling than the placebo effect. How can an inert sugar pill have therapeutic value?

The answer requires understanding the context that surrounds medical treatment – a setting in which the symbols and rituals of health care combine with the charged emotional reactions that arise when patients encounter healers. The importance of trust, empathy, hope, fear, trepidation, and uncertainty in the therapeutic encounter should not be disregarded.

By using sugar pills, saline injections, or even sham surgery, placebo research isolates provision of care from the direct effects of genuine medications or procedures. Recent research on the placebo effect has demonstrated that the clinical encounter alone – without the provision of any “real” medicine – can alleviate pain, improve sleep, relieve depression, and ameliorate the symptoms of a wide variety of conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, heart ailments, and migraine.

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