No placebo effect??

I was listening to the radio (All Things Considered, NPR) on Thursday and a story came up about some Danish researchers that looked at a few old studies and came to the conclusion that the placebo effect really didn’t exist. They said that diseases have up and down cycles, not to be confused with the placebo effect, and what you were seeing was the body’s ability to recover. They went on to say that doctor’s were unlikely to accept their work because they want to feel like they are helping people (by prescribing a placebo antibiotic for the flu), and that the placebo effect was too fixated in the profession. Are these findings supported by any other evidence? I find this hard to believe.

I find it very hard to believe, since every double-blind study ever done is based on and provides evidence for the placebo effect. Double-blind studies, of course, are where neither the doctor or the patient knows until the end whether they got the medicine or a placebo. Then they look at the placebo groups vs the medicated groups to see if the medicine did anything. The vast majority of these studies show placebo effects - the placebo groups feel better. So while it may be possible that these guys found a couple of studies that don’t show it, it’s still very well established.

These guys did and reveiwed prior studies that were double-blind…with a catch. They tested a placebo against a drug that did nothing and measured the results.

What exactly is the difference between a placebo and a drug that does nothing?

So how did they decide which one was the placebo?

I believe they reviewed studies where:

  1. the actual drug was used
  2. A placebo was used
  3. Neither the study drug nor a placebo were given.

I haven’t checked out the article or a summary of it closely yet, so I’m withholding further comment. But I won’t buy into the idea unless and until a few more reputable researchers can demonstrate the same type of thing.

Qadgop, MD

There’s a thread in MPSIMS Is the Placebo Effect a myth? that has some news links posted.

Most double blind studies that measure placebo against a drug presumably found to be more useful do show an effect for treating. While diseases may be cyclic, and I don’t fully accept this for many progressive conditions, this should cancel out for a large number of studied patients nor does it explain why drugs shown to be effective remain so when the various trials all have different study periods.

Is there often no placebo effect? Is it often overstated? This I would accept much more readily.