Fake surgery? Bring it on!
Scientists decided to take all these crazy theories further and instead of just fake pills, they started handing out fake surgeries. Don't worry, not for anything serious like a quadruple-bypass heart surgery.
Knee surgery is a different story. If you follow sports or have a grandparent, you have at least passing familiarity with arthroscopic surgery. In one landmark study, patients with osteoarthritis got either an actual arthroscopic surgery or a superficial cut that was stitched up. For a whole two years of reporting how their knees were coming along, patients who got the sham surgery were just as likely to report pain relief as those who got the real deal. What's more, more than a decade later surgeons found similar results in patients with a torn meniscus.
Down with high health care costs! Placebos for everyone!
One of the downsides of the placebo effect: it's screwing up science
The whole scientific method is based on using a control group, and all this time, researchers have been making the placebo the control group. Some patients get a drug. The other half gets a sugar pill. But what happens when the sugar pill has a pretty drastic effect too? Now we need another control group! That just confuses absolutely everything!
The scientific method is one reason that alternative treatments, like acupuncture, have been dismissed by researchers. Science doesn't explain why they work, so they must work for some people because it's all in their heads, they might say. Well, why is that a bad thing? Slowly but surely, it's becoming more and more accepted that the placebo effect is a real thing that can help people get better.
One ex-acupuncturist Harvard researcher even decided to do an experiment with no control group; every group got the so-called "placebo." You might see where this is going: Both sham treatments -- a fake pill and fake acupuncture -- produced results and side effects. Just like real drugs.
Coming to a doctor's office near you?
While placebos can’t be the only solution to health care costs, doctors are talking seriously about making them a real thing in medicine and part of real-life treatment plans. For example, a placebo can be used along with a real drug to reduce the dosage necessary.
Think handing someone a fake pill is unethical? The kicker to this whole placebo thing is that doctors don't need to resort to tricking people; telling patients they're taking a placebo still produces the same results. And it's a repeatable result, too -- patients with chronic back pain who were told they were taking placebo pills saw a 30% reduction in their symptoms. That's crazy, but also good news for anyone dealing with chronic pain.
Clearly you don't want to use a cornstarch pill to treat cancer. But with overdose deaths in America beginning to resemble the toll of HIV in the 1980s, and antibiotic resistance threatening the medical profession's ability to fight an entire class of illnesses, it's worth exploring ways to reduce the tendency to take prescription drugs for every ailment.
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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and when she uses chocolate as a self-prescribed placebo, it works! For more on health and healthcare, follow her tweets @MariKomarovsky.