15 things you didn’t know about the placebo effect

  1. 97% of GPs prescribe placebos: A survey of UK GPs found that almost all of them have prescribed placebos. The placebos they prescribed were either pure placebos – treatments containing no active ingredients, e.g. sugar pills; or impure placebos – treatments with active ingredients, but that will not have an effect upon the condition e.g. antibiotics for a viral infection. Sources: Research SummaryOriginal Paper
  2. “Until recently, the history of medical treatment was essentially the history of the placebo effect”: Until the intention of modern medicine, most treatments that have kept humanity alive for centuries were placebo treatments with no active ingredients. Source: The Powerful Placebo.
  3. Animals also experience the placebo effect: Several studies have found that animals can be conditioned to respond to placebos. For example, a study on mice with lupus, found that if mice were given medicine in sweetened water and then later, they were just given sweetened water, they would respond to the water as if it was the medication. Source: Original Study.
  4. Placebos can work even if you know they’re placebos: Researchers have found that if patients are given a placebo, but also told how and why placebos can work, they will respond to placebos as if it was an active medication. Source: Interview and Research Summary.
  5.  You can see the effects of placebos in the brain: Brain implants and MRI scanners have shown that neurons – the cells in the brain – can react to placebos the same way as they react to active medications.  This may not be true for every treatment, but there’s strong evidence that this is the case for pain relief and some neurological diseases. Source: The Placebo Effect in Clinical Practice.
  6. There is more than one placebo effect: Research suggests that there are several ways that the placebo effect can work. These can be purely psychological or may also involve the immune or endocrine systems. Sources: Placebo Effects.
  7. The more invasive, the better: The placebo effect can be made stronger: the more invasive the procedure, the stronger the placebo effect i.e. placebo surgery can have much stronger effects than a placebo that is rubbed into the skin. Source: Article.
  8. Two placebos is better than one: Taking two placebos can give you stronger effects than taking just one. Source: Article.
  9. The placebo effect can be responsible for 50% of a drug’s effectiveness: Almost every clinical study uses a group that has been given a placebo. Some studies also use a group that received no treatment at all. These groups can be compared to suggest how much of a drug’s effects are down to the placebo. Source: Article.
  10. More expensive = more effective: When people are given placebos with price labels on, they often feel that the higher priced placebo was more effective, even if they placebos are exactly the same. This also applies to generic vs. branded medication. Generic versions of branded drugs contain exactly the same active ingredients, but the packaging, cost and branding can influence how much people respond, making people feel stronger effects from the branded product. Source: Article.
  11. Colour affects placebo performance: Red, orange and yellow pills are better for stimulants; white, blue and green pills are more suited to tranquillisers. Colour may have other effects too that we don’t know about yet. Source: Academic Review.
  12. Personality may affect how you respond to placebos: If you have certain traits, you may be more likely to respond to the placebo effect that other people. This is great news if you’re a high placebo responder, because you may respond better to all treatments. Source: Academic Review.
  13. Psychiatric disorders are some of the most responsive conditions to the placebo effect: This can be as high as 30-50% of people in a study responding to a placebo. This can make it very difficult to understand how best to treat psychiatric disorders such as depression. Source: Academic Review.
  14. A bitter pill to swallow: Unpleasant, bitter tasting placebos have been found to have stronger effects than other placebos. Source: Academic Review.
  15. The placebo effect is getting stronger: We don’t yet know why this is happening, but it could be because people now have more faith in medical interventions than they did before. But this also makes it much harder for new drugs to get onto the market, as they are usually compared to placebos to see how well they work. If they are not much better than the placebo, they will not be put into production. Source: Article

(Image by Jonathan Rolande, ‘Colourful Pills’)

 

 

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