Why a placebo can work—even when you know it's fake

A placebo can trigger pain relief and other benefits even when patients are told the pills they are taking lack therapeutically active ingredients.

When Betty Durkin stepped onto her deck last June, she slipped on a loose board and fell on the floor. Durkin broke her neck, seriously bruised her wrists and knees, injured the top of her cervical spine, and got splinters lodged in her face. The pain was instantly unbearable.

After several days in a hospital, Durkin, a 73-year-old security clearance administrator in Marion, Massachusetts, was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Her pain was still intense, so Durkin was prescribed a round-the-clock regimen of opioids, something that worried her since a close friend had become addicted to these painkillers following two hospital stays. “I saw what opioids could do to a person. I never wanted to get close to that point,” Durkin says.

That’s why she was thrilled to learn of an unusual clinical trial taking place during her stay; physicians told her they would test whether her pain improved after receiving a placebo pill filled with soybean oil instead of a medicinal ingredient.

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