Placebos or sham treatment still effective

Updated: Mar 15, 2011, 00:00 AM IST

London: The placebo effect is so powerful that doctors are still relying on the age-old trick to get the mind into healing us.

Not so long ago, it wasn`t unusual for your friendly practitioner to have at hand a bottle of sugar pills for patients` minor aches and pains.

While sugar pills are no longer on offer, a report last week revealed that half of all German doctors are happily dishing out placebos to their patients for ailments such as stomach upset and low mood, the Telegraph reports.

The study, published by the German Medical Association, said that placebos can prove effective as treatments for minor problems and are completely without side effects.

The power of the placebo first came to light during the Second World War. Morphine was in short supply in military field hospitals and an American anaesthetist called Henry Beecher, who was preparing to treat a soldier with terrible injuries, feared that without the drug, the operation could induce a fatal heart attack.

In desperation, one of the nurses injected the man with a harmless solution of saline. To Beecher`s surprise, the patient settled down as if he had been given morphine and felt little pain during the entire operation. Beecher had witnessed the placebo effect.

Interestingly, the German study found that the efficacy of a placebo can depend on the size and colour of a pill and on its cost (with more expensive placebos being more effective) and that injections work better as placebos than tablets.

What causes the placebo effect, no one really knows; but the idea of the healing power of the mind is not new.

The discovery in the 1980s of the rich supply network of nerves linking the brain with the immune system, which led to a new branch of medical research known as psychoneuroimmunology, clearly goes some way to explain it.