A placebo is called a substance that does not have medicinal properties, but is recommended to the patient as a medicine. The phenomenon when a person feels better after taking such a drug is called the placebo effect. Expert Evgeny Gonchar explains how this effect works.

Back in 2010, a Cochrane review was conducted in which scientists examined the results of 202 clinical trials in 60 different medical conditions. Studies were analyzed where one group of patients received a placebo and the other group received nothing for treatment. The review concluded that placebo did not have a clinically significant effect; there was only some effect on the symptoms of pain and nausea.

Problems begin when such “medicines” or “medical technologies” are positioned as an alternative method of treatment and are considered one of the reasons for the patient’s recovery. The results are eloquent. A recent study of the consequences of the use of alternative medicine has shown that its proponents are more likely to refuse standard treatment and, as a result, have a higher risk of death.

The effect of the brain on numerous physiological functions is well known. But there is no reliable evidence that it can provide a sustainable therapeutic effect. Conclusions about the positive results of the treatment of diseases due to only the placebo effect are quite manipulative. Usually they do not take into account a number of factors:

1. Recovery is due to the natural processes in the body.

There are diseases that our body can cope with, for example, a cold. The average duration of the disease is 3–7 days, and by starting to receive a placebo (for example, homeopathy) on the 2nd – 3rd day of the disease, the patient begins to feel better on the following days precisely because of the natural course of the disease, and not due to the action of the “drug”.

2. There are effective medications that the patient takes along with alternative ones, for example, a sugar tablet or water injection.

The feeling of improvement in well-being given by the medicine, in some cases, may not occur immediately, but after a certain time after treatment. If a person took effective medications, and then switched to a placebo, then usually the first ones should be thanked for recovery. For example, a cancer patient could take effective antitumor drugs, as well as a variety of alternative drugs. And after achieving remission, he will incorrectly consider (and tell other patients) that this happened precisely due to some kind of “magic tincture”.

3. Symptoms decrease or disappear by subjective perception of a person.

If a person believes that fake medications can be real, then this can sometimes alleviate the symptoms of pain. However, a placebo cannot eradicate the disease because it does not affect its root cause. The placebo consciousness and effect cannot reduce swelling or lower blood cholesterol. Only drugs with proven effectiveness can cope with this.

If you reject these factors and trust only the placebo action, a pleasant thought about a miracle can take hold of a person, and he can refuse the real treatment. And if the disease does not apply to those passing in a natural way, then this is very dangerous.

You may not be using alternative medicine, but it is likely that one of your loved ones is prone to this. For example, instead of effective drugs to control pressure, dubious herbal preparations may be used. Do not ignore this, be sure to explain it yourself or ask your family doctor to explain the need for an effective treatment for hypertension.

But what to do with a positive placebo? Does that mean we have to drop them? Of course not. However, it is important to change the approach in using the placebo effect.

Scientists have determined that it is better not the fake drugs that determine this effect, but the context in which the patient receives treatment. This is a good relationship with a doctor, a place where help is provided, staff attention, a positive attitude towards treatment. The color and name of the drug and the behavior of people who are nearby also work.

It is these conditions, and not a drug without any molecule of the active substance, such as homeopathy, that help strengthen the therapeutic effect and go the way to recovery or reduce symptoms. Therefore, scientists propose to call this not a placebo effect, but a contextual effect. This will help to more rationalize the healing process and not to confuse mysticism with medicine.


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