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Examing the placebo effect... really

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The "placebo effect" refers to the phenomenon in which some people experience some relief or benefit from a pill, liquid solution or injection containing no medicine whatsoever.

One example of a placebo is the sugar pill. It has been known that in certain situations, when there is no clear alternative, some doctors have resorted to giving out sugar pills. Is this deception? Perhaps it is but, as unethical as it may seem, sometimes it could be just what the doctor ordered.

After all, placebo is Latin for "I shall please."

A placebo, in other words, is a fake treatment. The larger and more colourful the pill and the more recognizable the brand name is on the bottle, the more likely a patient is to believe his or her ailment will be cured.

Positive thinking plays a role. If the doctor says, "This pill should make you feel better soon, rather than "This pill may not have any effect on you," then it is more likely you will feel better.

In research, placebos are used to test new drugs to prove their worth. Some patients are given the actual drug while others are given sugar pills. Neither the doctors nor the patients are told which patients received which treatments and the effects are monitored. In some cases, even though a new drug seemed to have worked, a number of patients given placebos also experience positive effects.

Placebos have helped alleviate pain, depression and anxiety, all due to belief in the product and the administrator. Placebos also activate opioids,  found in our own bodies,  thus aiding the alleviation, at least to some degree.

The reverse  of the placebo effect is called "the nocebo effect" in which such interventions have a negative effect on the body. If some people strongly believe that the treatments they are taking will given them side effects, they may experience those effects even though they’ve been given a placebo.

If this topic interests you there are many sites and many articles about this phenomenon through Google search.

And if you think this topic is just hogwash ... take a pill!

Rick Sparling is a community correspondent for North Kildonan. Email him at ricksparling@shaw.ca

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