Covert drug dependence should be the null hypothesis for explaining drug-withdrawal-induced clinical deterioration: The necessity for placebo versus drug withdrawal trials on normal control subjects. Bruce G. Charlton. Medical Hypotheses. 2010; 74: 761-763.
(The core ideas are all drawn from David Healy - articulated in an adjacent article from the same issue of Medical Hypotheses - what I provided was the expression.)
Some edited excerpts:
Just as a placebo can mimic an immediately effective drug, so chronic drug dependence may mimic an effective long-term or preventive treatment...
The discovery of the placebo had a profound result upon medical practice. After the placebo effect was discovered it was recognized that it was much harder to determine the therapeutic value of an intervention than previously assumed.
An analogous recognition of the effect of drug dependence is now overdue, especially in relation to psychoactive drugs.
Just as placebo controlled trials of drugs are regarded as necessary to detect ineffective drugs, so drug withdrawal trials on normal control subjects should be regarded as necessary to detect dependence-producing drugs.
Nowadays the placebo effect is routinely assumed to be the cause of patient improvement unless proven otherwise. Placebo effect is therefore the null hypothesis used to explain therapeutic improvements.
The first aim of drug evaluation is now to show that measured benefits cannot wholly be explained by placebo.
This has led to widespread adoption of placebo controlled trials which compare the effect of the putative drug with a placebo. Only when the drug produces a greater effect than placebo alone, is it recognized as a potentially effective therapy.
The effect of withdrawing a drug upon which a subject has become dependent can be regarded as analogous to the placebo effect, in the sense that drug dependence resembles the placebo effect in being able to mislead concerning clinical effectiveness.
It may routinely be assumed that if a patient gets worse when drug treatment is stopped, then this change is due to the patient losing the beneficial effects of the drug, so that the underlying disease (for which the drug was being prescribed) has re-emerged.
However, this naïve assumption is certainly unjustified as a general rule because drug dependence produces exactly the same effect.
When a patient has become dependent on a drug, then adverse consequences following withdrawal may have nothing to do with revealing an underlying, long-term illness. Instead, chronic drug use has actually made the patient ill, the drug has created a new but covert pathology...
The body (including brain) has adapted to the presence of the drug and now needs the drug in order to function normally such that the covert pathology only emerges when the drug is removed and body systems are disrupted by its absence.
Eliminating drug dependence as an explanation for withdrawal effects cannot be achieved in the context of normal clinical practice, nor by the standard formal methodologies of controlled clinical trials. Just as eliminating the possibility of placebo effects requires specially designed placebo controlled therapeutic trails, so eliminating the occurrence of covert drug dependence requires also specially designed withdrawal trials on normal control subjects.
Our existing clinical evaluation procedures are not capable of detecting withdrawal effects.
Even worse, current procedures misattribute the creation of dependence and harm following withdrawal, as instead being evidence of drug benefit with implication of the necessity for continued treatment of a supposed chronic illness.
The currently prevailing practices and assumptions systematically favours new drugs about which little is known.
Lack of evidence of dependence is interpreted as evidence of no dependence - perpetuating ignorance, and favouring new drugs about which we are ignorant.
In other words, as things stand; a drug that creates chronic dependence will instead be credited with curing a chronic disease.
Our current practice is precisely equivalent to chronic alcohol treatment being regarded as a cure for alcoholism - on the evidential basis that delirium tremens follows alcohol withdrawal, and alcohol can be used to treat delirium tremens!
Note: The prime example of covert drug dependence is psychiatric drugs - especially (so called) antidepressants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers.
For instance antidepressants cause serious withdrawal symptoms that mimic the illness for which they were prescribed. This is interpreted as some kind of chronic depression or other illness. And that person may be recommended to stay on the drug.
Whenever the patient tries to stop taking the antidepressant, he gets depressive symptoms. The longer he stays on the antidepressant, the worse the withdrawal depression becomes. He may take the antidepressant forever, on the assumption he has chronic depression and that the drug is doing him good.
Thus people who want to stop taking antidepressants - either because they don't want to take drugs forever, or because the drugs have bad side effects on them (such as emotional blunting and demotivation, sexual dysfunction, or intermittent suicidal impulses) find they can't stop taking them. As a result, antidepressant prescriptions have been going up and up.
Big Pharma makes tens of billions of dollars per year by causing covert drug dependence then selling it as long term, preventive treatment.