Let's Hear It for Placebos

Placebo is a Latin word meaning "I shall please." The term is used to describe a treatment that has no discernible medical effect, yet that makes the patient feel better. Saying that a pill has no more benefit than a placebo means that it helps some people, but nobody knows why. It is generally agreed that a placebo effect lasts no more than three weeks.

Studies have shown that most problems that bring people to see their physicians would resolve themselves within a few weeks without medical intervention, so seeing a doctor may often be a placebo in itself. That is not a reason for staying away from the doctor. But it is a reason not to see the placebo effect as something negative or useless.

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