The Sugar Pill

Sugar pills or placebos are sham medicines that help prove drugs work, but surely they can’t make you better if you are really sick. Well there is some evidence that they might improve your symptoms and may not be as useless as previously thought.

By testing the action of a drug against a sugar pill you can prove if it is effective or not. Drug companies do this in their clinical trials of new drugs. The idea is that you give some patients the active drug and others a sugar pill that obviously isn’t going to work as a control. The patients don’t know what they are getting and neither do the researchers and it is done in a blinded way to ensure there is no bias.

If the drug works statistically better than the sugar pill, then you have something useful you can use to make people better. At least that is the spin of the drug companies and they make bucket loads of money and are backed by the medical establishment, so they must be right.

The problem is that some sugar pills seem to work by themselves on some occasions and some of them work better than others. And you would not expect that if they had no effect at all. Also there are times when if you give two sugar pills then they seem to work better than if you give one. Again this doesn’t make sense. Also if you give a sugar pill with the label ‘Aspirin’ on it then it works better than the exact same pill with no label ‘Aspirin’ on it.

So what does this mean? Well it is not all in the mind, but certainly some of it is. If you a positive attitude and believe the medicine you are getting will work and you are given a sugar pill and you don’t know it is not a drug, then you are more likely to get more benefit from your sugar pill. Surprisingly, if you do this the other way round and you are given an active drug and told it is a sugar pill it sometimes delays the action of the drug and even in some cases the drug doesn’t work for you at all.

So there seems to be something to the context in which a medicine is given and works that the sugar pill taps into.

The doctor-patient relationship is critical and the doctor who gives you the sugar pill can effect how much it works. If your doctor is sourly and in a bad mood, you are less likely to get benefit from your sugar pill then if your doctor is concerned, sympathetic and chatty.

But it goes further than that. If your doctor believes you are being given a medicine, but you get a sugar pill instead and he doesn’t know it, then you may still do better than if he knows you are getting the sugar pill.


Sugar pills may improve the way our medications work. Sugar pills that have been given with powerful pain medicines have reduced the amount of these drugs needed for pain control. This means less side-effects from these drugs, as most of them are pretty nasty. The big downside of the sugar pill is it is cheap, and that means less profit for the drug companies.

The old adage that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down may prove to be more of a truism than just the sweetening of the bitterest pill.



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