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  • Dr Darren Burke Explains The Placebo Effect

    Published on July 21, 2023

    The placebo-effect is real and in the world of scientific research, one of the most widely accepted standards of rigor is the double-blind, placebo-controlled study. In a double-blind study neither the researchers nor the participants know who is getting the treatment or the placebo. This rules out any bias and allows for a true assessment of the results, above and beyond “the placebo effect”.

    A double blind study is considered the gold standard for determining the efficacy and safety of interventions, such as new dietary supplements, drugs, or procedures and is used across a range of fields, from medicine to psychology. This double-blind study design also considers the effects of a placebo as a variable that can and often does affect results. As a scientist I knew to expect results from the placebo group related to this well known concept of “the placebo effect”; however, it still was fascinating to see that significant changes often occur from the interventions with a placebo.

    A famous example of the placebo effect involves the use of sham surgeries for patients with a knee condition called osteoarthritis. In 2002, a groundbreaking study published in the New England Journal of Medicine conducted by Dr. Bruce Moseley investigated the efficacy of arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee.

    The study involved 180 patients who were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group received arthroscopic surgery, another group received a placebo surgery, and a third group received non-surgical treatments such as physical therapy and medication. The placebo surgery involved making incisions in the knee without actually performing any surgical procedure.

    Surprisingly, the results of the study revealed that the patients who underwent the placebo surgery reported significant improvements in pain and mobility similar to those who received the actual surgery. Both the arthroscopic surgery and placebo surgery groups experienced better outcomes compared to the non-surgical group.

    This study highlighted the powerful impact of the placebo effect in the context of surgical interventions. It suggested that the psychological belief and expectation of receiving a surgical procedure can lead to tangible improvements in patient outcomes, even in the absence of a genuine surgical intervention. The findings from this study prompted further investigations into the effectiveness of various surgical procedures, emphasizing the importance of placebo-controlled trials to accurately assess the true efficacy of medical interventions.

    There are many other examples of the placebo effect in other studies and therefore the importance of the double-blind, placebo-controlled research design. The work being done by supplement researchers to test new ingredients or combinations of ingredients in product formulations involves this gold standard of study design. Thus, helping to advance the knowledge base and transparency for consumers as they assess the claims being made by companies selling weight loss pills, muscle building powders, and other supplements. When searching for reviews or peer-reviewed research results add pubmed to the end of your google search string as that search will bring you to where scientific findings of double blind studies are published.

    As an academic scientist I built my career conducting human subject clinical trials on athletes consuming dietary supplements and training. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals is a critical part of the foundation of any quality research program and a sure sign of good science, honesty and integrity. Be sure to check PubMed (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/) the next time you look for information on your favourite product.


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