The Placebo Effect: Cures and Side Effects From Sugar Pills

Placebos are used in clinical trials as well as in real life cases. Photo by: Elaine and Arthur Shapiro

Placebos are used in clinical trials as well as in real life cases. Photo by: Elaine and Arthur Shapiro

Placebo Side Effects?

Placebo treatments can affect how you feel, and this happens in one out of three patients, reports the American Cancer Society. The placebo effect occurs when there is a change in a person’s symptoms as a result of getting the placebo. This effect usually only lasts a short time and is thought to correlate with the body’s chemicals to relieve pain or other symptoms.

But is it possible for the placebo to have side effects like real medication? It sure can. Possible side effects can include headaches, nervousness  nausea, and constipation –  just to name a few. This is known as the nocebo effect.

So whether you experience a positive outcome (symptoms go away) or a negative outcome (unpleasant side effects) these outcomes are known as the expectation effect. Basically it means: What you think will happen, will happen. If you think that getting the treatment is going to resolve your symptoms, then you have a positive outcome. However, if you take the placebo treatment thinking that you will have side effects from it, then you may experience those side effects.

Placebos in the Past

No one knows for sure why placebos work, but they do show that there is a definite connection between the brain and the body… And this ‘placebo effect’ has been around for thousands of years. However, the medicine men and Shamans (traditional healers and spiritual leaders) wouldn’t have thought of their non-medical treatments as placebos, according to the American Cancer Society. The healing powers of these non-medical practitioners would have worked in conjunction with the patient’s belief and trust in these men. The same holds true for people taking a placebo – if they think it will work, symptoms may be relieved. The brain is a powerful tool for doctors and patients.


American Cancer Society. Placebo Effect. (2012). Accessed March 20, 2013.

Howick, J., Bishop, F., Heneghan, C., Lewith, G., Placebo use in the United Kingdom: Results from a national survey of primary care practitioners. (2013). PLOS One. Accessed March 20, 2013.

© Copyright 2013 Janelle Vaesa, MPH, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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