Placebo is a Latin word that literally means “I will please” and is used for any phony version of a treatment or medication. Not many doctors and health care professionals admit to administering placebo drugs and treatments, but it can be seen in some cases of off label prescribing and giving antibiotics to patients with a cold.

Some people will show improvement while on the sham medication and procedures because they want to believe that they are better. They want to believe that whatever their health provider gives them will work and heal them. This power of mind over matter, or suggestion, works for 30-35% of the people initially. Most that have this improvement will see their symptoms returning as it is only a temporary fix. Researchers are still studying then phenom of the placebo effect.

Contributing Factors

There can be spontaneous improvement. The patient that was given the placebo can begin to show signs of improvement that they would have shown even if the placebo had not been given to them.

There can be a remission. Most conditions have fluctuations in which they have periods of good times and bad. The placebo can be given during a period when the patient could have shown a remission even without the fake drug or treatment.

It could have been from the benefit of an additional medication. Many times chronic pain patients are on a variety of drugs. The placebo could be getting the praise for something that one of the other medications is responsible for.

History of Placebo Trials

1907- First known double blind placebo trial is done by W.H.R. Rivers. It was used to study the effects of drugs and alcohol on fatigue.

1920’s to 1930’s- More placebo studies are done and most are not double blind.

1940’s to 1950’s- Harry Gold published and lectured on the design of the double blind placebo study.

1970’s- The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recommends that using the double blind placebo design be used as the preferred method for studies.


Modern Drug Discovery, July/August 1999 2(4)30-40

The Arthritis Foundation’s Guide to Pain Management, Susan Bernstein, 2003, Arthritis Foundation, ISBN 0-912423-39-0