Placebo effect

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The placebo effect is the well-known lessening of pain and other symptoms when a patient is told that he is getting normal medicine[1] but actually given an inert substance,[2] such as sugar pills. It can occur when exploratory surgery is conducted, too. For example, a tension headache will frequently disappear if the patient believes they are being given an analgesic.[3] Researchers generally believe that its effect is due entirely to the patient's expectation.

The effectiveness of a pain relief medicine is always contrasted with the effectiveness of a placebo. The question is not how well it relieves pain, but how much better is it than a placebo? Part of the study group will receive a placebo, and the remainder the group will receive the new medication being studied, so that the differences in outcome may be compared.

Example of Drug vs Placebo in Headache Pain Management

  • Two hours after treatment of an in-progress moderate or severe headache, 49% of patients given 100 mg of sumatriptan reported no or mild pain, a significantly greater response rate than the 38% among the placebo group. At 4 hours, the response rate was 64% with sumatriptan and 45% with placebo.[4]


  1. Scientists generally agree that for the placebo effect to occur, the subject must believe that he is given effective treatment and that it must be suggested to him that the treatment is effective. The question of how and why placebo responses are generated is still a matter of debate. The Power of the Placebo Effect
  2. A placebo is a neutral treatment (such as an inactive pill) that may nevertheless promote healing because of the hope and confidence placed in it. Cox Associates - glossary of psychological terms
  3. Cephalalgia Volume 23 Issue 1
  4. Jancin, Bruce. "For tension headache, 100 mg of sumatriptan far exceeds placebo". Clinical Psychiatry News. August, 2004. via

See also