Feb 15 2011
Can a Placebo Cure ADHD?
In my last post, I told the story of a radio talk show caller who substituted candy for his step-son’s ADHD stimulant and successfully treated his ADHD. As many of you noted, the candy acted as a placebo or fake medication and worked just like the “old sugar pills” that doctors in the early 1900’s gave to patients when they really didn’t have the foggiest idea what was wrong with them.
In the case of this child, the placebo candy probably worked because the child really wasn’t ADHD. I suspect any pill and literally any type of medication could have been used to effectively treat the child. He was probably gifted-talented and literally any type of medication would have worked to improve his grades and behavior!
Why? Because everyone-the teacher-his fellow students-and other family members really believed he was ADHD and were convinced his behavior was better only when he was taking his pills! Once both he and they thought he was “back on his pills”, his behavior and classroom performance was suddenly ok. Both the child and his teachers were responding in a positive manner (getting better) to a placebo-candy-sugar-fake medicine.
Ironically, ADHD medications, whether real or fake can cause ADHD misdiagnosis! Reference: Chapter 13 in the ADHD book “Mistaken for ADHD”.
How? Many doctors, parents and teachers mistakenly believe that you can confirm or prove the diagnosis of ADHD by placing a child on ADHD stimulants as a test. They erroneously assume any kid whose behavior improves on ADHD drugs was indeed ADHD.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Many conditions that might mimic or act like ADHD (anxiety, depression, hypothyroidism) will temporarily improve while a child is on stimulants. The real danger in using this technique to diagnose ADHD lies in the fact that the problem causing the child’s behavior disorder goes undiagnosed and untreated. These kids will often suffer serious side-effects of their unrecognized medical condition and may have permanent medical problems (brain damage, heart disease, death).
It’s very important that a behavior-disordered child or teen undergo a thorough evaluation prior to being labeled and treated for ADHD. Many common medical problems can act just like ADHD, confusing the correct diagnosis!
FYI-Placebos are rarely used in medicine now as they are considered a deceitful way to treat unknown illnesses and can damage a patient’s well-being when discovered.