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Mind Over Body: Can Sugar Pills (Placebo) Reduce Pain?

Updated on September 9, 2013

One of the truly amazing research findings is how sugar pills or placebos can somehow "trick" us into feeling or getting better. For example, because many of us believe that we will be helped by taking pills, about one-third of the population report feeling much better or having less pain after taking a pill, not knowing that it was only a sugar pill--placebo.

A placebo is some intervention, such as taking a pill, receiving an injection, or undergoing an operation, that resembles medical therapy but that, in fact, has no medical effects.

A placebo effect is a change in the patient's illness (for better or worse) that is due to the patient's beliefs or experiences rather than the medical treatment.

For example, if people take a pill for headache pain and believe or expect the pill will decrease their pain, about 30 to 60% of people will actually feel less pain after taking a placebo.

Because of the placebo effect can occur after taking any pill (injection or medical procedure), researchers needed to find a method that could separate a person's expectations and beliefs from the actual effects of a new drug or medical treatment. The method that researchers use to separate the effects of a person's expectations (placebo effect) from a pill or medical treatment is called the double-blind design.

In a double-blind procedure, neither the researchers ("blind") nor the subjects ("blind") know who is receiving what treatment. Because neither researchers nor subjects know who is receiving which treatment, the researchers' or subjects' expectations have a chance to equally affect both treatments (drug and placebo).

For example, in a double-blind design, headache sufferers would be told that they will be given one of two different kinds of pills to decrease pain. Unknown to the subjects ("blind") and the researchers ("blind"), one of the pills is a drug and one is a placebo. If subjects taking the drug report the same decrease in pain as those taking the placebo, researchers conclude that the drug is no better than a placebo. If the subjects taking the drug report less pain than those taking the placebo, researchers conclude that the drug is medically useful because it is better than a placebo.

Over the past 25 years, hundreds of double-blind experiments have found that 30% to 98% of people have reported beneficial effects after taking placebos. What follows is a sample of these findings, which demonstrate how people's expectations and beliefs can change placebos into powerful medicine.

Placebo Results:Four convincing examples of pain reduction that involved placebos and double-blind procedures

98% of patients originally reported marked or complete relief of pain from ulcers after medical treatment (gastric freezing). However, in a later double-blind procedure, this treatment was shown to be ineffective.

85% of patients originally reported a reduction in pain from Herpes simplex (cold sores and genital sores) after a drug treatment. However, in a later double-blind procedure, this drug was proved to be ineffective.

56% of patients reported a decrease in heart pain (angina pectoris) after being given a medical procedure that, unknown to the patient, involved only a skin incision.

35% of patients who had arthroscopic knee surgery reported decreased pain. About 250,000 patients a year get this surgery ($5,000 each). In a double-blind study, the placebo group (sham surgery) reported a similar decrease. (Moseley et al.,2002)


First, potentially very powerful placebo effects, such as reducing pain, getting over colds, or speeding recovery from medical procedures, have been greatly underestimated.

Second, both medication (pills, injections) and fake surgeries can produce significant placebo effects, such as reducing pain, in 15 to 98% of patients.

Third, and of great interest to psychologists, placebos indicate a powerful mind-over body interaction. This mind-over-body interaction explains why people may really experience and report surprising health benefits from taking a wide variety of placebos on the market, such as unproven herbal remedies.

Researchers suggest that placebo may work by creating positive expectations and beliefs that reduce anxiety and stress. In turn, the reduction of anxiety results in perceiving less pain. And the reduction in stress improves functioning of the immune system so that the body can better fight off toxins and make a quicker recovery from some problem. Thus, there is no question that our minds have powerful effects on our bodies.


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