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The Placebo Response

Updated on July 21, 2012

Placebos are as old as medicine itself and have been proven effective especially with psychosomatic problems. In the past, the medical community had more or less deemed them unworthy of serious scientific investigation.

But they had a wakeup call during World War II when an Army nurse treated a wounded soldier and the morphine supply ran low. In desperation she injected him with a shot of salt water assuring the patient his pain would soon subside. Amazingly the deception worked, relieving the soldier's agony and preventing the onset of shock.

Even so, there was little scientific interest in the phenomenon and research money, was hard to come by. Thus, the placebo remained on the back burner and was considered little more than a nuisance. Any treatments using them were generally stigmatized as unethical.

What turns a dummy pill into an effective pain reliever and catalyst for treating, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, or Parkinson's disease? The body’s own healing mechanisms, launched by the belief a counterfeit medication, is the real thing. This effect can also be greatly enhanced by a doctor's bedside manner and demeanor of confidence when administering it.

In the past, response to a placebo had been considered psychological in nature, attributed to neurosis and gullibility rather than a physiological reaction. Then, it was discovered the placebo effect could have a neurological foundation when a drug called naloxone was found to nullify the pain relief attributed to placebo treatments.

Further research revealed the brain produces its own pain relieving compounds called opioids. Opioids are released under conditions of stress and naloxone blocked the action of these natural analgesics. Thus, the effectiveness of the placebo was proven.

In later research, it was also established the color of a tablet can boost the effectiveness of placebos or even genuine medications, by convincing a patient they are more potent then they really are. These colors were deemed to be most effective when representing the following:

· Yellow -Antidepressants

· Red – Stimulants

· Green - Anxiety Reducers

· White –Antacids, Pain Relievers

· Blue – Tranquilizers

Placebo activated opioids not only relieve pain; they modulate heart rate and respiration. In addition, dopamine, a neurotransmitter, when released by placebo treatment helps improve motor function in Parkinson's patients. Some results are elevated mood, sharpened cognitive ability, alleviated digestive disorders and insomnia relief. At the same time the secretion of stress-related hormones like insulin and cortisol are reduced. The process can also work in reverse. For example, test subjects taking a prostate drug were told it may cause sexual dysfunction. Many did.

However, the placebo response has limits. It can ease chemotherapy discomfort, but can’t stop the growth of tumors. Use of placebos in medicine has been mostly limited to boosting the confidence of anxious patients. But, nearly half of the doctors polled in a 2007 survey said they had prescribed medications they knew were ineffective or in doses too low to produce actual benefits in order to produce a placebo response.

Although the placebo’s effectiveness has been scientifically proven, more widespread use of it is still being objected to on the misguided grounds its clinical practice is unethical.


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    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Great information! I never knew about the color of the pills having a better effect, but I do know that the mind is an amazing thing. Voted up.

    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 5 years ago from Ireland

      Been told medication I am on is almost useless i.e. very very low dose but yet if I try to give it up I regress so I can believe placebo's can have an effect. Interesting article.

    • Pamela-anne profile image

      Pamela-anne 5 years ago from Miller Lake

      Great informative hub it just goes to show how the body has more self healing properties than we know of! Keep the hubs coming thanks for sharing take care.

    • Lucky Cats profile image

      Kathy 5 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      hi there JY! Very very interesting! Several things came to mind as I read this great; animals tend to be perceived as not feeling pain or reacting to it as intensely as we do. Some attribute this to a lack of "understanding" or defining what "pain" is; thus, there is no 'fear of pain, no anticipation; no mental image of the damage done. Animals can go on while badly (but not incapacitated) injured, they do not obsess on the injured tissue/area.

      Another thought is that, t he very idea that our minds can "conjure" or facilitate a soothing/less traumatic response to our own injury/pain as a result of suggestion is a very hopeful, fascinating idea. Yes, I've heard of this previously; the placebo effect. I believe it 100%.

      The fact that particular colors cause the recipient of placebo therepy (of course, w/out knowing that they are being given a "non" drug) is also incredibly intriguing! As we know, the colors associated w/expected effectiveness also relate to our "mood" responses to colors; Yellow: "up," "happy," "positive." Red: "exciting," "stimulating," believed to cause an increase in appetite. Blue: 'relaxing,' 'soothing,' "mellow," "peaceful." And White: 'clean,' 'therapeutic,' 'sterile,' 'anticeptic.'

      I like the example you've illustrated, of the nurse who (probably feeling very empathetic w/her patients and looking for "something" to ease them...) gave the saline solution in lieu of the morphine which had run very low. Fascinating!!!

      Excellent hub, John! Very very informative and interesting. UP Useful, Interesting, Awesome.