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Placebo's as pleasing treatments: History of the concept

Placebo's as pleasing treatments: History of the concept

  • Plato's cure for headaches involved a leaf coupled with a charm. Without uttering the charm at the moment of application, the remedy was not effective. We would call Plato's "charm" a placebo.
  • In the 18th century, the term "placebo" was used to describe a doctor. In his 1763 book, Dr Pierce describes a visit to his sick friend, saying that he found "Dr Placebo" sitting at her bedside. She said she was well, and Pierce seems to imply that the positive effect Dr Placebo had was due to his great bedside manner, rather than the drops he gave.
  • Eventually, the word "placebo" started being used to describe treatments. In 1752, the Scottish obstetrician William Smellie used some innocent Placemus that his patient "may take between whiles, to beguile the time and please her imagination."

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Placebos in clinical trials

Placebos were used in clinical trials in the 18th century to debunk "quack" cures. The so-called "non-quack" cures included bloodletting and feeding patients the undigested material from the intestines of an oriental goat. These needed no trials because they were considered to be...

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Placebo ethics

It is accepted that placebos are not ethical because they require deceptions. But this view does not account for the evidence that we don't need deception for placebos to work.
Further mistaken claims:

  • We can only trust placebo controls. New treat...

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Placebo surgery

A review of over 50 placebo-controlled surgery trials shows that fake surgery worked as well as the real surgery in more than half the trials.

One famous study is from an American surgeon Bruce Moseley. 180 patients had such severe knee pain that even the best drugs fa...

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Testing if placebos really work

Early placebo trials that tested the effects of homoeopathy tablets revealed that doing nothing was better than both homoeopathy and allopathic (standard) medicine.

In the 1990s, Danish medical researchers compared people who take placebos with people who take no treatment...

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The history of learning how placebos work

A comprehensive study published in 1999 found that placebo effects were caused by both expectancy and conditioning.

But some researchers argue that there is something mysterious about how placebos work. While it is easy to see what happens inside the brain to the amygdala, or the other bit...

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Honest placebos

A placebo can work even if the patient does not believe it is a real treatment.

This can be because patients have a conditioned response to an encounter with their doctor. Just like an arachnophobe's body can react negatively to a spider even if they know it's not poisonou...

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