Placebo: Your Questions Answered…

What are placebo effects?

Placebo effects are healing effects induced by the contextual cues that surround healing interventions. They can be found broadly across a spectrum of treatments from conventional medicine and surgery to alternative medicine and spiritual healing rituals.

What are placebos?

Placebos are the contextual cues that induce placebo effects. In clinical research, ‘dummy’ pills / sugar pills are often used to mimic the appearance of a medication so that participants do not know whether they are taking the medication or a placebo. But placebos also include other ‘sham forms of treatment i.e. sham surgery, symbolic aspects i.e. syringe, clinical.healing interactions i.e. doctor-patient-relationship and healing environments i.e. hospitals. Due to the wide variety of contextual cues, placebos can vary from culture to culture. Whilst little research has been done in this area, it has been suggested that various healing rituals from the past and present, may be attributed to the placebo effect.

Why research the placebo effect?

Placebo effects are often mistakenly allocated to the realms of quackery or as a tool in clinical trials, but these are both very narrow perspectives to take. Whilst placebo effects are used as a comparison in clinical trials, research into the mechanisms of how they work is gaining popularity in the scientific community. People are beginning to recognise that the mechanisms of placebo effects should not be ignored, because they may provide us with novel possibilities for treating disease.

How does the placebo effect work and how can it treat people?

There are many types of placebo mechanism. Many placebos rely on neurotransmitters (signalling chemicals in the brain) or specific brain areas. Many medications also work in this way i.e. painkillers, anti-depressants, Parkinson’s disease medication etc.

Can they heal people?

Placebos are generally found effective in treating symptoms, rather than in curing disease. There is not currently any authoritative evidence suggesting that placebos can cure cancer (although there are several case studies to suggest this may be the case), but placebos have been found effective to alleviate secondary symptoms such as pain, nausea, fatigue etc.

How does the placebo effect relate to conventional pharmaceuticals?

It has been found that the placebo effect could account for 50% of a drug’s efficacy. In one trial, a painkiller was labelled as a placebo and a placebo was labelled as a painkiller. With both being found to have equal effect upon patients. But when the painkiller was labelled correctly, it’s effects were increased by 50%.


If you have any other questions, please send them through on the Contact page and I will do my best to get back to you and add them to this list.


Kaptchuk, TJ and Miller FG. Placebo Effects in Medicine. The New England Journal of Medicine 373 (2015) p.8-9.
Wager, TD and Atlas LY. The neuroscience of placebo effects: connecting context, learning and health. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience 16 (2015) p403-418.

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