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Placebos still work when you know that they contain no medication

The 'placebo effect' just got more effective

Olivia Petter
Wednesday 27 September 2017 12:38 BST
Dealers are selling 'street blues' for mere pennies.
Dealers are selling 'street blues' for mere pennies. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Whether you know you’re taking a placebo pill or not, it will still have a beneficial effect, new research has revealed.

Scientists from Harvard University and the University of Basel prescribed a group of minor burn victims with a "treatment" cream, telling only some of them that it was a placebo.

After the cream was applied, both groups reported benefits, despite the placebo cream containing no medicine.

The study goes against traditional medical thinking surrounding the placebo effect, which has always revolved around the idea that it was necessary to deceive patients in order for “sugar pills” to be clinically effective.

The research was conducted on 160 burn patients who were otherwise healthy and between the ages of 18 and 65. More than half of them were women.

The volunteers were split into three groups: the first was a control group that was not administered any form of treatment; the second was informed that they’d been given a cream that would numb their skin; and the third was given the same cream but told that it contained no medicine.

The researchers fully explained the meaning of the placebo effect to the third group, telling them that it has been found to alleviate symptoms of pain, asthma and even depression.

Once all of the treatment-receiving participants had applied the cream, they were asked to describe how they felt.

They found that both groups had reacted in the same positive way to the cream, calling into question “the ubiquitously assumed necessity of concealment in placebo administration.”

Even medically speaking, it seems that honesty really is the best policy.

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