Ask Dr. J.: What are placebo effects?

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What are placebo effects?

When doctors do medical research, they are always on the lookout for effects that appear to be due to a treatment but in reality are due to other factors. This is particularly the case when symptoms of an illness are variable and affected by stress or emotions. It is also an important consideration when the signs of an illness are subjective (reported by the patient) rather than objective (measured by a lab test or other equipment). However, even objective testing can be influenced by subjective feelings.

Symptoms are also affected by expectations of the test subject and even the person administering the test. These are the reasons that medical researchers introduce controls to their studies – to find out if the results are due to these expectations. Placebo comes from the Latin word meaning to please – the patient trying to please the doctor by reporting that their symptoms are better as a result of the doctor’s treatment. The symptoms may actually be better, because we know that the brain has a strong influence on the healing process. But the symptoms may not be influenced by the treatment, which is what the study is trying to determine. This is what is meant by the placebo effect.