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How Placebos Work

A placebo is an inactive medication or medical procedure that resembles an actual treatment but is a fake version that does not actually act on a disease or medical condition. For some people, however, placebos can still have a positive or negative effect on symptoms, if only for a brief period of time. A positive placebo effect is thought to occur as a result of believing a treatment is real, combined with the body’s natural ability to provide pain relief. In effect, placebo can be a psychological remedy for a physical ailment.

Placebos do not generally have long-lasting effects and they do not cure diseases. Much of the placebo effect depends on a person’s expectations. If a person expects to feel relief, they just might. If a person fears side effects, those might occur. When the placebo effect is negative, it is sometimes referred to as the nocebo effect.

Sugar Pills in Action


While the effects are generally temporary, placebo treatments play a role in understanding the mind-body-brain connection in both private medical practice and biomedical research. Placebos are often used in medical research to help determine if the effects of a new treatment are actually due to the treatment itself, rather than some other factor. In a double-blind study, for instance, volunteers don’t know if they are getting the actual treatment or a placebo, so the results can be considered unbiased. Ethical guidelines have been established to prevent the misuse of, and get the most benefits from, placebo treatments.

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