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Surprising Science

Why Placebos Work So Well

More and more research suggests there is more than a fleeting boost to be gained from placebos. A change in mind-set about your health can create powerful physical changes.

What’s the Latest Development?

The power and prevalence of placebos is surprising. In a survey of 700 British internists and rheumatologists, about half said they prescribe placebos on a regular basis. While prescribing placebos without patient consent is illegal in the US, plenty of clinical trials demonstrate their success even when patients are told they are being given a sugar pill. Placebos have been shown to have a positive effect on weight loss, depression, gastrointestinal pain, migraines and even Parkinson’s.

What’s the Big Idea?

Doctors say the routine of taking a pill, even though it contains no actual medicine, puts patients in a positive environment with respect to their health, creating an openness for change. But do placebos change the biology of diseases or do they just change a patient’s perceptions of his or her symptoms? Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies, says, “Right now, I think evidence is that placebo changes not the underlying biology of an illness, but the way a person experiences or reacts to an illness.”

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