The Importance of Placebos

A placebo is a medical treatment or procedure designed to deceive the participant of a clinical experiment. It does not contain any active ingredients but often still produces a physical effect on the individual. Placebos are essential to the design of reliable clinical trials. Their once-surprising effect on participants has become the focus of many studies.

In early clinical trials, the capabilities of a new drug were measured against a group of people who took no medication. However, since discovering that the simple act of taking an empty tablet can produce the placebo effect, it is now considered essential to have a third group of participants. This additional group takes a tablet containing no active ingredient to measure the response against them. Participants in this group will take a sugar pill, for example.

A drug is only approved when it produces a greater effect than a placebo. Placebos have been shown to produce measurable, physiological changes, such as an increase in heart rate or blood pressure. However, illnesses that rely on the self-reporting of symptoms for measurement are most strongly influenced by placebos, such as depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and chronic pain.

Placebo interventions vary in strength depending on many factors. For instance, an injection causes a stronger placebo effect than a tablet. Two tablets work better than one, capsules are stronger than tablets, and larger pills produce greater reactions. One review of multiple studies found that even the color of pills made a difference to the placebo results. This usage raises ethical questions. The doctor is misleading the patient. On the other hand, if the placebo has the intended effect, it should still be considered effective treatment. Rather than dismissing or attempting to minimize placebo effects, current and future researchers are exploring ways to harness and use beneficially the power of the placebo.

Placebos have been shown to work in a number of situations. If they can be used alongside pharmaceutical interventions, they can theoretically improve medical treatments, that’s why at Althian, we like to accept challenging clinical trials involving placebos. Please contact us for more information about running clinical trials with us.