In scientific studies, the term placebo usually refers to an inert
pill or procedure that serves as a comparison to an active
intervention (typically a drug or psychotherapy). Now a handful of
acupuncture studies not only provides additional evidence that a
placebo itself can have dramatic impact on illness, but also
suggest that the context in which an intervention takes place can
bolster the placebo response.
The nature of the placebo response — and whether it even exists —
has been the subject of scientific discussion for decades. In a
1955 paper, pioneering anesthesiologist Dr. Henry K. Beecher
famously described the placebo response as powerful. Nearly a
half-century later, a review published by the prestigious Cochrane
Collaboration concluded instead that the placebo might be
powerless. More recently, the Cochrane reviewers conducted another
analysis and reached a middle ground, concluding that for some
clinical conditions — particularly pain and nausea — placebos may
confer symptom alleviation, while in other situations they do not.
This raises the obvious question: why would placebos work in some
cases but not in others? The latest research has been aimed at
better understanding the placebo response by studying it on its own
rather than just as a comparison to a drug or psychotherapy.
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