Big Pharma Headache: The Power of Placebos

Big Pharma Headache: The Power of Placebos

The placebo effect is a positive reaction to a non-medicine or medically recognized treatment. It has been known for centuries yet this may be the first time it is being officially recognized by medical science (even though it’s not medicine, but don’t tell anyone or it might not work).

The American Cancer Society describes the placebo effect as,

“A placebo (pluh-SEE-bow) is a substance or other kind of treatment that looks just like a regular treatment or medicine, but is not. It’s actually an inactive “look-alike” treatment or substance. This means it’s not a medicine.”

The power of placebos when it comes to benefiting mental and physical conditions can be significant. Sometimes, just accepting the fact that you might recover or feel a little better may be all you need for a placebo to work. Best of all, most of the time, you don’t even know it’s working.

Faux Science

The application of a placebo can operate on several levels but, in the end, it seems that the power of the mind may override many ailments. WebMD explains,

“It could be a pill, a shot, or some other type of “fake” treatment. What all placebos have in common is that they do not contain an active substance meant to affect health.”

The thing is, even though it may be considered fake, the placebo effect is being taken seriously by Big Pharma. So much so that pharmaceutical companies have found a way to compete with placebos performing just as well or even better than pharma drugs.

The Big Pharma Placebo Push

Natural News reports on research by the magazine Wired which found that the placebo effect has created great concern for Big Pharma stating that,

“The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills [placebo] has thrown the [pharmaceutical] industry into crisis…[and that]…half of all drugs that fail in late-stage trials drop out because of their inability to beat sugar pills.”

The pharmaceutical industry is unable to beat the facts of a placebo compromising their product, so it has turned to clever advertising campaigns to make consumers “believe” conventional drugs work. This is done by associating specific pharmaceutical drugs to life moments that connect with the viewer. Family scenes, walking a dog, riding a bike, etc. have shown to be good ways for pharmaceuticals to work just as well as a placebo. Also, the added effect of what color a pill is can also trigger a placebo effect which is one reason there is a rainbow of meds out there.

Attention and Labels

Another aspect of the placebo effect is how patients react to two factors; how they are treated by the practitioner and the name of the medicine. It’s one thing to color a pill and have a more positive response but it’s another thing to give it a name and face for successful results.

This may have happened to you when you were ill and decided to see a doctor but when you got to the doctor’s office you didn’t feel as sick anymore. Maybe a prescription for a drug or a brief checkup and some advice reduced your symptoms considerably.

People that were given a placebo disguised as a name brand medicine from a doctor in a lab coat that treated them well, improved. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported,

“a recent study of episodic migraine demonstrated that when patients took rizatriptan (10 mg) that was labeled “placebo” the outcomes did not differ from those in patients given placebos deceptively labeled “rizatriptan”. However, when ritzatriptan was correctly labeled its analgesic effect increased by 50%.”

The Nocebo Effect

The placebo effect can work in reverse and rather than improve, a person may get worse. This is called the nocebo effect and is also cited by the NEJM,

“Not infrequently, patients perceive side effects of medications that are actually caused by anticipation of negative effects…For example, nocebo effects were demonstrated in a study of benign prostatic hypertrophy treated with finasteride: patients informed of the sexual side effect of this drug reported sexual side effects at three times the rate that patients who were not so informed did.”

This is where Big Pharma has another caveat to tackle. Although some people are able to ignore the legal disclaimers of pharma commercials and “believe” the drug will help them, others run for the hills. This is the nocebo demographic and with the billion dollar plus alternative remedy industry growing every day, it may be even more of a problem for Big Pharma than placebo consumers.

Smithsonian Institute magazine reported on the nocebo effect citing a clinical study by researchers from GV (Sonny) VA Medical Center, Mental Health Service, Jackson, MS,

published in General Hospital Psychiatry stating how the nocebo effect may possibly lead to death,

“researchers noted an individual who attempted to commit suicide by swallowing 26 pills. Although they were merely placebo tablets without a biological mechanism to harm the patient even at such a high dose, he experienced dangerously low blood pressure and required injections of fluids to be stabilized, based solely on the belief that the overdose of tablets would be deadly. After it was revealed that they were sugar pills, the symptoms went away quickly.”

It may seem like positive or negative thinking but it is believed the placebo and nocebo effects  go beyond that. However, it’s probably always best to look on the bright side as much as you can as there are a variety of studies that confirm the benefits, but that’s for another dailyhealthalerts topic. Until then, watch for more fake science giving Big Pharma a run for its money and how using it to their advantage could slip in at any moment.