Placebo Effect

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Medications and other treatments can provide relief from the symptoms of a wide variety of illnesses. However, in some cases, it’s also true that the belief in their effectiveness alone can have measurable health benefits when compare with medical treatment. This is what’s known as the placebo effect, which occurs when an individual experiences an improvement in symptoms of a mental or physical health condition while undergoing a neutral treatment that they incorrectly believe to have active effects. 

The placebo effect is a proven phenomenon that has a range of implications when it comes to medication, healing, and even mental health. Below, we’ll explore the power of the placebo: it’s history, why it occurs, and how it works in real-world examples.

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History of research on the placebo effect

In centuries past, many believed that the most important part of a medical professional’s job was to comfort the patient. This belief led to the practice of providing treatments that we now refer to as placebos, which were utilized to help assuage a patient’s concerns until they healed. 

As early as the 18th and 19th centuries, people began to explore the possibility that placebo treatment may have measurable beneficial effects. The concept of the placebo effect was first fleshed out by T.C. Graves in 1920, when he authored a paper that described placebos as having a therapeutic influence on the mind. The term was officially coined in 1955 by Henry Beecher in a paper called The Powerful Placebo.

Since then, researchers have uncovered extensive evidence that placebo treatment can have positive effects and help improve symptoms of a wide range of health challenges. Placebos have also played a crucial role in many studies over the years to determine the effectiveness of treatments, as well as check for side effects, through clinical trials. Researchers and treatment developers use a placebo to determine if a new drug or medical treatment is effective. In a double-blind study, one group of participants is given an active medication while the other is given an inactive medication or placebo—usually salt water, a sugar pill, a placebo pill, or similar. In psychiatry, to study the placebo effect, psychology experts conduct clinical trials where one group is given the actual active treatment and another placebo group is given a placebo. If the outcomes for both groups are closely similar, the medication or treatment is often thought to be ineffective. Complicating these results, however, is the fact that participants who take placebos in double-blind studies often experience measurable health benefits as well. Researchers will also ask study participants to report whether they experience a side effect as a result of either the active or inactive (placebo) treatment. 

Researchers then look at the treatment outcomes and if the placebo-labeled treatment presents a therapeutic benefit lower than the active medical treatment then the new treatment is considered effective.

Why placebos work

Throughout the years, there has been extensive debate about why exactly placebo occurs. More recently, studies have found that the mind-body connection may help explain the placebo effect. For example, a 2014 study in Science Translational Medicine, of people who experience episodic migraine attacks found that placebos showed some efficacy for pain relief. In fact, as the study states, the placebos “accounted for more than 50% of the drug effect.” Researchers concluded that the participants’ belief that they were taking the actual medication could increase its efficacy and help relieve pain. 

Other research shows that the placebo of inactive treatment may be related to the brain’s response to the expectation of beneficial results since they believe they’re taking the active treatment. Oftentimes, when an individual believes that they’ve been given effective treatment, their brain releases chemicals like dopamine that can boost mood, reduce stress, and may produce other health benefits relating to both mental and physical health.


Examples of conditions that the placebo effect may improve

Because placebos have been used extensively in studies of medications and other treatments, there’s a large body of research that suggests the placebo effect can improve symptoms of various health conditions. The following are examples of these.

Understanding Parkinson’s disease

One study sought to find out how placebos might improve the conditions of people with Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that causes uncontrollable movements and issues with coordination and balance. Through PET scans performed on participants who were given placebo pills, researchers discovered that their brains were releasing dopamine in response to the inactive treatment. Researchers concluded that this release is the reason for the established efficacy of placebos when treating Parkinson’s.

Placebo acupuncture benefits irritable bowel syndrome (LBS): Supportive care amplifies relief

Irritable bowel syndrome is a relatively common disorder that causes gastrointestinal problems like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. In one study, people with IBS were given either no treatment or a placebo acupuncture treatment, either with or without supportive interactions with a doctor. Both placebo groups had better results than the group with no treatment with regard to pain intensity. It's also important to note that those who received supportive care from a professional along with the placebo treatment had even better results.

Various mental health conditions

Placebos have also been successfully utilized in the treatment of various mental health disorders. In one study, for instance, researchers examined the benefits of an antidepressant compared to those of a placebo sugar pill when treating unipolar depression. PET scans of the brains of both groups of participants—those who received a placebo and those who received an antidepressant—showed an increase in cortical glucose metabolism and a decrease in paralimbic activity, which helped to reduce symptoms of depression. Researchers noted that the active approach to pursuing treatment—even if it was a placebo—helped boost the mood of participants and improve their symptoms. However, the antidepressant brought about additional brain changes that gave participants further relief.

In another study, researchers gave participants placebos that were labeled either “serotonin” or “oxytocin” and asked them to self-report stress-related symptoms, anxiety, and depression. Researchers found reductions in all three areas, leading them to conclude that placebo treatment could potentially be part of an effective treatment plan based on the provision of information to patients (i.e., telling the individual they were taking a specific medication). 

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Harnessing the power of the mind through therapy

As studies observing the placebo effect show, the mind can be a powerful healing tool for chronic pain. Another way to harness it is through therapy—especially a modality like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to shift emotional responses and behaviors by teaching an individual to notice and adjust unhelpful thought patterns. 

Research shows that therapy—whether online or in person—can be a useful form of active treatment for various mental health-related concerns. In a review of over 90 studies on the efficacy of online therapy in particular, researchers concluded that online therapy can reduce the symptoms of a range of disorders and can be as effective as in-person treatment. For those who prefer the convenience of speaking with a therapist from the comfort of home, online therapy is a viable option.

With online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you can find out more about how to use your mind—through reframing and other methods—to improve your mental health. You can participate in therapy with a licensed provider completely remotely, via video call, voice call, and/or in-app messaging. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

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The placebo effect is a proven phenomenon that can help relieve symptoms of some mental and physical health conditions. If you’d like to learn more about the power of the mind and the role it can play in your own well-being, consider working with a therapist.
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