When we tell someone who is unwell “It is all in your head”, we rarely suspect the extent to which this is true. The world of medicine in recent years has started to obtain a better understanding of the phenomenon known as “the placebo effect” - a situation in which treatment with a false medicine leads to an actual improvement in the health condition. The phenomenon has been well documented for many diseases, ranging from simple cases of a fleeting pain to the healing of infections and even to improvement in the condition of cancerous tumors.

The amazing thing about this effect is that two drugs with an identical chemical composition, which differ in branding, shape or color, will produce very different and sometimes even opposite results. The following video explains the placebo effect and provides examples of its remarkable peculiarities. 

Video produced by Luke Harris and Daniel Keogh.

The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon, and it could be claimed that placebo medicines have been the most widely used medicinal treatments throughout history. All the treatments prevalent in the Middle Ages and in antiquity as well as various folk medicines relied almost completely on the placebo effect. After all, it’s hard to argue with a 30% success rate. Even today, quite a few therapeutic approaches, mainly in the field of alternative medicine, rely heavily on this effect.

Conventional medicine has to deal with this phenomenon as well. One of the biggest problems in drug development is that it is often difficult to determine whether the effect of an actual given drug is real or whether it is merely a placebo effect. For this purpose each clinical trial experiment has to include a negative control group in which the subjects in the trial are given a placebo. 

Naturally, the methodology of these trials raises complex ethical issues - is it right to treat a patient with a placebo when they could be given proper medical treatment? Why does the advancement of medical knowledge entail putting at risk the health of patients? To address this issue, several studies were able to roughly quantify the effectiveness of the placebo effect, which is estimated at a success rate of nearly 30 percent. Therefore, for a drug or a treatment to be considered effective, they must surpass the placebo efficacy threshold. However, the current trend is to waive the  placebo treatment and instead to treat the control group with a different proven medical treatment. This way it is possible to see both whether the treatment works as well as to compare it in effectiveness to existing treatments.

An interesting point to mention is that quite a few pharmaceutical companies avoid performing comparisons with competing drugs and instead continue to use placebo groups to prove the efficacy of medical treatments, but this already is related to the ethical dilemmas of how [not] to perform science.

Another interesting fact is that certain pharmaceutical companies harness the placebo effect by dyeing their pills in intense colors, use elegant packaging and of course charge exorbitant prices, assuming that all of these factors will strengthen the placebo effect. This cannot be claimed to be completely immoral, aside from the price issue. After all, it eventually works and improves recovery rates. Maybe the next time you take a painkiller you will notice its color and understand why indeed the red or green color was chosen.

The placebo effect is not limited to pills and drugs. Studies have shown that placebo surgeries (a small incision at the surgery site without any actual invasive intervention), and even implantation of placebo pacemakers, result in improvement of a patient’s well-being. Another interesting use of the placebo effect is manifested in a computer game called Re-mission, in which players simulate a nanobot whose assignment is to eliminate cancer cells in a human body. When children with cancer were allowed to play this game in parallel with the standard treatments they received, some of them showed significant health improvement. This means that some of these children were able to trick their bodies into feeling as if they were actually within the game, fighting the disease and defeating it.

Even today, many charlatans exist, who, similar to the pagan doctors of the past, take advantage of the placebo effect in order to sell false treatments to the general public. Luckily, there is a very simple way to check whether they speak the truth, and that is by using a control group. If you encounter a dietary supplement, a medical treatment or any other product that claims to have the potential to improve your condition, search for the studies that should be present at the company’s website and look for the placebo group. If such a comparison does not exist, it is probable that the paying customers are in fact the placebo group.