The placebo effect is a bizarre scientific phenomenon where dummy medicines – ones which are known to have no actual medical benefits – help people recover from illnesses.
Nobody knows quite how the placebo effect works, but the results can be astounding. Patients taking placebo drugs have reported massive reductions in pain and improvements to conditions, such as migraines and stomach ulcers.
How do placebos work?
Exactly how placebos work remains a bit of a mystery, but scientists now think that actual biological changes happen in our bodies when we take them. Previously, people put the effectiveness of placebos down to ‘mind over matter’, but this is no longer the case.
In a study testing the effect of placebos on Parkinson’s disease, it was found that a pill made only of sugar caused patients to produce the chemical dopamine, which helped their condition. Placebos can also cause your brain to produce its own natural painkillers after operations.
So even though we aren’t totally sure why placebos work, we know that they can have very strong medical benefits.
Strange things that affect how placebos work
One particularly remarkable thing about the placebo effect is the way that the appearances of fake medicines change how well they work in making people feel better.
In trials using placebo drugs, larger pills were found to have a stronger impact. The colour of the pills also made a difference – red pills had the biggest impact in reducing pain and green pills were best for treating anxiety. Most effective of all was a false injection of a completely harmless solution rather than a tablet.
The person giving the so-called drug also made a big difference. If the person was not a medical professional then the outcome was less noticeable. If the doctor giving the placebo was more caring and spent a lot of time with a patient, this improved the outcome further.
What if you know the medicine isn’t real?
Weirdly enough, placebos can have an effect even if people know that they are placebos! Studies have found that improvements occur when patients are told they’re being given placebo pills for their illnesses. It is thought that perhaps the act of visiting a doctor and receiving medical advice is enough to make a difference.