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How Does Placebo Effect Work?

Placebo effect is a mysterious subject and has long studied. Research uses placebo – an inactive treatment, such as a sugar pill – in an attempt to understand the real impact of the active drug. The results of the patient group receiving the active drug are then compared with the results of those taking a placebo drug. In this way, researchers can understand how beneficial the active medicine is.

How Does Placebo Effect Work

The word “placebo” comes from Latin and means “I would like” or “please.” In the post-study study, it has been shown that most people receiving placebo have an improvement in their symptoms or condition.


Placebo effect is real


Recent research on the placebo effect confirms how powerful it can be – and the benefits of placebo treatment are not just “in your head”. Physiologically measurable changes can be seen in those taking a placebo drug, similar to those seen in people taking effective medications. In particular, blood pressure, cardiac rhythm and blood test results have been shown to improve among subjects who received a placebo drug during various research.


Of course, not everyone has a therapeutic response to a placebo medicine. If that were the case, we would not need medication. Instead, we could simply discuss the power of autosuggestion. Understanding the reason why people’s condition improves with placebo and other people is not the essential part of placebo research.

Nocebo: the bad twin of placebo


The power of self-defense is a two-edged sword. If you expect treatment to help you, it is likely to happen. And if you expect treatment to be harmful, you are more likely to experience adverse, adverse effects. This phenomenon is called “nocebo effect” (Latin “I will hurt”). For example, if you tell a person that a headache is a common side effect of a particular drug, that person is more likely to experience headaches even if they actually only take a placebo medicine. The power of expectations is formidable and probably plays a significant role in the benefits and / or side effects of commonly prescribed drugs.


Is the power of the placebo effect rising?


A new fascinating study examined the impact of placebo in 84 pain management studies over the past 23 years. Researchers have found that the placebo effect has become remarkably stronger, but this observation has been noticed strictly in US studies. Why? A theory explains the phenomenon through direct advertising floods to drug users in the U.S. (which are not allowed in most other countries) that increases patients’ expectations that a drug will help them. Higher expectations of the efficacy of a drug may translate into a greater placebo effect.


Another theory correlates with the increasing effectiveness of placebo with research studies in itself: the higher, the more expensive and the more elaborate the process, the higher will be the expectations of the study participants. Tests of this type tend to be more common in the U.S. than elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, there is a disadvantage to this trend. A strong placebo effect makes it more difficult for researchers to demonstrate that a new drug is effective. The stronger the placebo effect, the more difficult it is to demonstrate a significant difference between a placebo and an active drug – even if the active drug is good enough. As a result, some effective drugs could “fail” in clinical trials.

How Does Placebo Effect Work?

As Scientific American reported:

“In recent decades reports have confirmed the efficacy of various sham treatments in nearly all areas of medicine. Placebos have helped alleviate pain, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory disorders and even cancer

Placebo effects can arise not only from a conscious belief in a drug but also from subconscious associations between recovery and the experience of being treated—from the pinch of a shot to a doctor’s white coat. Such subliminal conditioning can control bodily processes of which we are unaware, such as immune responses and the release of hormones. … Researchers have decoded some of the biology of placebo responses, demonstrating that they stem from active processes in the brain.”

In one study, it was shown that simply thinking a placebo will help relieve pain will prompt your brain to release more natural painkillers, known as endorphins.10 It’s also been found that some people may be more susceptible to the placebo effect than others because of varying levels of dopamine activity in the area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, a region involved with the ability to experience pleasure and reward

How Does  Placebo Effect Work?

So while the exact mechanisms behind the placebo effect are still being explored, there’s no denying that the effect is real. And, most likely, the placebo effect takes on many different forms, impacting brain mechanisms involved in expectation, anxiety and rewards. In short, a placebo really does change your brain, in a number of different ways. Writing in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology researchers noted:

“First, as the placebo effect is basically a psychosocial context effect, these data indicate that different social stimuli, such as words and rituals of the therapeutic act, may change the chemistry and circuitry of the patient’s brain. Second, the mechanisms that are activated by placebos are the same as those activated by drugs, which suggests a cognitive/affective interference with drug action. Third, if prefrontal functioning is impaired, placebo responses are reduced or totally lacking, as occurs in dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.”

Researchers at Hamburg University Medical Center-Eppendorf, Germany, have been able to fully decipher the secret by which the effect of Placebo manages to combat pain.

The team of scientists found that when it comes to suffering being controlled, the placebo effect involves a series of chain reactions triggered in the brain area most closely connected to the spinal cord.


However, perhaps the day will come when the placebo effect will be better understood and in the right circumstances, used effectively in clinical practice. Given that many people either do not improve their status with standard medications or have disturbing side effects, we hope that day will come soon.

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