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Why Placebos Didn't Kill Alexa Ray Joel

Last month, musician Billy Joel's daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, was rushed to the hospital in an apparent suicide attempt. She had taken an overdose of a medication called Traumeel, which is used to treat joint pain. The younger Joel, who had been distraught over a relationship breakup, called 911 after taking an unknown number of pills and was rushed to the hospital.

She soon made a full recovery, and fortunately was unharmed by the pills she took because Traumeel is a homeopathic medication, which means that it has no active ingredients. It is therefore is not something that one can "overdose" on.

Joel's medical non-emergency put a national spotlight on homeopathic medicines, part of the multi-billion-dollar "alternative medicine" industry.

Homeopathy was invented about 200 years ago by a German doctor named Samuel Hahnemann. He believed that — contrary to what we know about pharmacology — homeopathic medicines actually become more effective the more they are diluted. Homeopathic medications are often so literally watered-down that they don't contain a single molecule of the original medicine or substance. Depending on how diluted the solution is — as expressed on the label as X (a 10-fold dilution) or C (a 100-fold dilution) — there is often literally no active ingredient in the "medication."

It is just water. If homeopathy worked, it would violate basic rules of physics and science.

You can test the homeopathic principle yourself easily at home: Using this principle, the next time you reach for an aspirin or other pain reliever, you should probably crush the pill, pick out a few of the smaller crumbs of medicine, and take those. Less is more, so the less you take of the medicine, the more effective it should be.

Do homeopathic medicines work? It depends on what you mean by "work." Do they sometimes make you feel better? Yes. Do they work better than real medicines whose efficacy must be proven in carefully controlled scientific trials before being sold to the public? Not a chance.

Real medications are tested against placebos — inert pills that have no active ingredients, but which the patient is led to believe might have some effect. Doctors have known for centuries that many patients will report feeling better with or without effective medical intervention. The patients' expectation and belief in the treatment can in some cases temporarily relieve pain or other symptoms.

So in order to distinguish real medications from placebos, carefully controlled studies must be done. Significantly, research has shown that homeopathic remedies are about as effective as placebos — which in modern medicine indicates they are ineffective.

This does not, of course, take away from the seriousness of Joel's actions. She apparently believed that the pills she took might actually harm or kill her. Luckily, the placebo effect is not strong enough to kill, and the laws of physics remain intact.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.

Benjamin Radford
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.