The Placebo Effect: The Problem of Self-Medicating

Millions of people around the world take medication every day to treat all sorts of illnesses, both mental and physical. The vast majority of these people will never think twice about the pills they’re taking or the syringes they’re injecting. They trust that their doctors know what’s best for them. However, in the age of the internet, access to medical information is only a few clicks away. And a small but growing number of individuals are choosing to self-medicate.

This means that instead of seeing a doctor and getting a prescription, they’re buying medication over the internet or from other sources. 

Person self-medicating, holding pill and glass

Self-medicating can be harmless. If you have a headache, you don’t need the advice or prescription of a medical professional to know that you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen. In some cases, however, without a professional opinion, many self-medicating individuals fall victim to the placebo effect. This is when they believe medication is working when several factors prove that it isn’t.

What is the Placebo Effect? 

The placebo effect is a psychological phenomenon when a patient believes that they are receiving treatment — even if that treatment is nothing more than a sugar pill. The power of the mind is so great that, in some cases, patients have been known to experience real physical changes like an increase in heart rate or a decrease in pain.

When most people think of the placebo effect, they think of it in a positive light. The idea that we can sometimes heal ourselves through our thoughts and beliefs is empowering. However, one flip side of the placebo effect is when people believe that a specific therapy or medication is working when in reality, the individual taking them may have just gotten better on their own.

For example, an individual may start taking a wonder drug that claims to help relieve anxiety, and within a few weeks, they notice that their anxiety seems to be gone. It’s easy to attribute this change to the new drug when in reality, the person may have just naturally recovered from their episode. This is what we call “self-limiting.”

doctor and patient talking

What Does “Self-Limiting” Mean? 

Self-limiting refers to the idea that people are more likely to experience the placebo effect when they treat themselves for conditions that will eventually go away on their own.

If you have a cold that will run its course in a week or two, you’re more likely to believe that any medication you take during that time is responsible for your recovery — even though it was just the natural progression of your illness. 

Many common illnesses are self-limiting. This is the reason why the placebo effect can be so tricky. Just because you start feeling better after taking a particular medication doesn’t necessarily mean that the drug was responsible for your recovery.

What is a Sham Procedure? 

A sham procedure is another term for placebo surgery. This is when an individual goes under the knife believing they are receiving actual medical treatment when in reality, they’re not.

two doctors operating

Sham procedures can play an essential role in scientific research, as they help researchers control for the placebo effect. Let’s say a researcher is testing a new knee surgery to see if it’s more effective than the current standard of care. To do this, they will need to perform two surgeries. One will use the new technique and one, the old technique.

However, to control for the placebo effect, the researcher may also need to perform a sham surgery. This is an identical surgery except that no actual treatment is provided. By comparing the results of all three surgeries, the researcher can see if the new technique is more effective or if the patients’ improvements are due to the placebo effect.

Pharmaceuticals Aren’t Always the Answer

It’s important to remember that the placebo effect isn’t just about medications and surgeries. It can apply to any treatment. 

People may believe that a certain supplement is helping them lose weight or that a new diet is giving them more energy. But in reality, these changes may be due to the placebo effect. 

Sometimes pharmaceuticals can help. But in most cases, the best course of action may be just to let nature take its course.

The Placebo Effect in the Time of Pandemic

The current pandemic is a perfect example of how the placebo effect can be helpful and harmful.

Gloved hands holding globe with face mask

On the one hand, there’s evidence that people’s beliefs about their risk of contracting the virus can influence their actual risk. People who believe they are at high risk of contracting the virus may be more likely to take precautions — such as wearing a mask or social distancing. This can reduce their risk of getting the disease. 

On the other hand, the panic and hysteria the pandemic brought influenced the rise of treatments and medications that claim to have cured individuals with COVID-19. In most cases, the individuals subjected to these treatments are not immunocompromised. They may have just improved on their own due to the self-limiting nature of the disease.

What Does it All Mean?

There’s no harm in taking vitamins or supplements if you believe they’re helping you. However, it’s important to be aware of the placebo effect. Understand that sometimes, the best course of action may be just to let nature take its course. 

If you’re considering any treatment — whether it’s a new supplement, a diet change, or even surgery — it’s always best to consult with a medical professional first. 

This isn’t to say that you should never try new treatments. Or that you should only try treatments that are 100% effective. But you should always do so with the guidance of your doctor. Your physician can also give you the reassurance that an illness is self-limiting. The best course of action may be to let it go away on its own. They’ll be able to give you the best advice for your specific situation and help you avoid any potential harm.

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Author: Jonathan Baktari MD

CEO of e7health and US Drug Test Centers

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Jonathan Baktari MD

Jonathan Baktari, MD brings over 20 years of clinical, administrative and entrepreneurial experience to lead the current e7 Health team. He has been a triple board-certified physician with specialties in internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has been the Medical Director of The Valley Health Systems, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Culinary Health Fund and currently is the CEO of two healthcare companies.
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