What is a placebo?
The literal translation of the Latin word ‘placebo’ means “I shall please”. From the earliest of times the ‘placebo effect’ has been recognised as a powerful aid in healing treatments. Clinical tests demonstrate that a significant number of placebo recipients experience beneficial effects when measured against others taking active medicines. A placebo treatment consists of an inert medical pill (often referred to as a “sugar pill”) or a simulated medical procedure. Depending on what clinical trials you inspect the successful placebo effectiveness rate can be up to 70% - a quite staggering figure for an inert substance.
A placebo can be a tablet, a capsule, a cream, an injection, a drink, a mechanical apparatus (the higher-tech the better) or even an operation. The essential characteristic is that the treatment is medically ineffectual consisting of inert medication or sham operations. It seems that the effectiveness of placebo treatments can be affected by factors like the colour, size, quantity and the way it is administered (bed-side manner). For instance, yellow placebos have had demonstratively better results when administered to patients suffering from depression whereas blue placebos have been seen to be the most effective in calming down anxious patients.
Much to the alarm of some in the pharmaceutical industries the ‘placebo effect’ appears to be getting stronger! Recent double blind clinical tests1 undertaken using established antidepressant medication have shown that placebos administered to patients can be equally as effective as their active counterparts, especially when tested on mildly depressed patients - this has been interpreted by some to indicate that the ‘placebo effect’ is getting stronger. This is because when these recent tests are compared against the original clinical trials, it seems that the trial group receiving placebos demonstrate a significantly increased number of medical improvements.