Dear Dr. Snee,
What is a placebo? Is that what mother dogs eat when they have puppies?
–Johnny Laster, age 8
A mother dog eats the placenta, which is part of the sac that fetuses live inside of while in their mother’s stomach.
But that’s not just dogs: all mammals have them, including humans. I talked to your mom (in bed) and she told me that she intentionally ate Indian food the entire week you were due, just so your placenta would taste like curry.
A placebo, on the other hand, is a tricky medical term.
No, really. Doctors use placebos on patients we kind of hope don’t make it, on ones that we know are fakers or when we’re playing a joke on the fresh meat at the local pharmacy. (HA! Gotcha, Clancy, you s#&tf@$ker!)
Basically, it’s a “cure” that does nothing. It’s often a sugar pill, though those get expensive, so sometimes I just throw some Tic-Tacs into any of the leftover prescription bottles I have laying aroun–Has anyone seen my Cialis? Ah, well.
Where was I? Right, placeeeeeeeeeeeeeee … bos.
Now, everything I’ve said so far might seem duplicitous, maybe even dastardly or dickish. But there are legitimate reasons for placebos, too.
You see, doctors have to lie to people sometimes to help them, just like your friends do when they say you haven’t changed a bit since college and make it sound like a good thing. The truth is that you’re fat now and I don’t really have anything that cures cancer.
So, I give you a blank, generic-looking pill and say it’s experimental. If you look dubious (another D-word, I am on a roll!), then I’ll sell you on it by saying that it’s from the South American rainforest. See? That’s not an outright lie because I gave you chicle.
The other important role placebos play is in clinical trials. There are three types of people that sign up for medical experiments: the unemployable, medical students and people looking to make a quick buck on a lawsuit … after pocketing the quick buck they got from us.
In order to test a pill to see if it even works, we need two groups of test subjects: one that receives the real pill and on that receives a placeboooooooooh. The results are two-fold:
- We (hopefully) eliminate effects not caused by our drug. For instance, if both groups experience nausea, the drug has been eliminated as a cause and we focus our investigation on bioterrorism … or the cafeteria’s Tuna Salad Surprise.
- When someone sues because of a side-effect of the pill (or lunch), we can say, “He took the placebo.”
And if the pill might actually be the culprit, we stop human testing, sell it to third-world veterinarians and blame the associated illness on some made-up new disease. We usually think up the name while on the phone with the vets, so that’s why we keep naming contained super flus after animals.
But here’s the funny thing about placebos: sometimes they actually work. And I don’t mean, here’s-a-sugar-pill, oh-look-your-hypoglycemia’s-looking-better working. I mean working work.
Remember the girl you went to college with who’s fat and has cancer now that I mentioned six paragraphs ago? Sometimes that fat girl’s cancer gets better just because she thinks it will, whether it’s because of some sugar pill I gave her, a semen enema or telling her to put her shoes on opposite feet.
Science can’t explain it, but it just f%#king works sometimes.
So, Johnny, that’s what a placebo is: a truth serum/teller, a powerful research tool and sometimes, just sometimes, a rectal bulb filled with my semen.
* Rick Snee is not, in any way, a licensed medical professional or an actor that plays one on television. He’s just really opinionated, which is good enough for blogging. To submit your own questions to Dr. Snee, Guynecologist, post comments below or email the good doctor.