What Is A Placebo And Why Might It Be Used In The Treatment Of Pain?

Dr. Portenoy answers the question: 'What Is A Placebo, Why Used For Pain?'

ByABC News
November 11, 2008, 4:24 PM

— -- Question: What Is A Placebo And Why Might It Be Used In The Treatment Of Pain?

Answer: Many patients with pain know that placebos are used when drugs are studied in order to determine whether the drugs have pain relieving effects. And some people want to know whether or not doctors would ever use placebos in order to try to treat patient's pain.

Now what's a placebo? A placebo is a substance or an intervention of some other type that is not known to affect the underlying problem; it's not known to relieve pain. It's usually an inert substance that could be a sugar tablet for example.

Placebos are used in studies in order to find out whether or not the pharmacological effect of a drug actually includes pain relief or whether the effects produced by the drug might be related to psychological processes that are generically called the placebo effect.

Placebos generally are not used in clinical medicine and the reason for that is that patients who are given a placebo cannot be told that they're being giving a placebo because that would prevent it from possibly eliciting the placebo effect. In other words, the placebo only has the potency to work if a person doesn't know that he or she is receiving a tablet that doesn't have any effect on the body.

In other words, for a doctor to use a placebo, it implies that the doctor would have to misrepresent the therapy to the patient. There have to be an element of lying that the doctor would have to say nothing about the fact that the placebo doesn't have a physiological effect and still prescribe it for the patient.

That kind of behavior is something that typically works against a good therapeutic alliance between the physician and the patient and for that reason, placebos are not typically preferred in clinical medicine.

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