How placebo works: Placebo is the word researchers use to describe “fake” treatment. To makes sure the treatments they are testing work they need to make sure that just the act of giving treatment and the person’s beliefs that they will improve isn’t what is making a person better. Often times a person’s beliefs about the care they are receiving helps them feel better. The way this can be explained is that the brain changes the way it perceives signals based on what it thinks is happening. So if the brain thinks a person should be getting better it may pay less attention to pain signals.
Evidence in children: In children placebo treatment, like a sugar pill given daily, has been as effective as amitriptyline and topiramate at preventing migraines, with less negative side effects. 1 Some researchers even suggest that placebo may be one of the best treatments for children as it reduces negative outcomes. 2 Placebo has the negative association of deceiving the person receiving placebo but placebo works even when people know they are just taking sugar pills. 3
Cautions: Placebo has very few negative effects but people receiving placebo treatments do sometimes report side effects like cognitive disorders, and memory impairment, dry mouth, and altered mood. In the trial were people reported these side effects, the number of people reporting these side effects was significantly less than people on the comparison medications (amitriptyline and topiramate). 1
1. Powers, S. W. et al. Trial of Amitriptyline, Topiramate, and Placebo for Pediatric Migraine. N. Engl. J. Med. 376, 115–124 (2017).
2. Faria, V., Linnman, C., Lebel, A. & Borsook, D. Harnessing the Placebo Effect in Pediatric Migraine Clinic. J. Pediatr. 165, 659–665 (2014).
3. Kaptchuk, T. J. et al. Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. PLOS ONE 5, e15591 (2010).