Many of us learned in high school biology that the placebo effect is when you think that a treatment is effective even though the treatment or medication is an inactive form of treatment. You think you will feel better, so you believe that you are better.
High school biology was wrong. Studies using sophisticated brain scanning equipment have shown that when participants believed a medication would ease pain, the brain releases endorphins and opioids, the brain’s natural painkillers.
PET scans turned up differences in brain activity. Those who reported pain relief after taking the placebo showed increased activity in parts of the brain associated with modulating pain. A radioactive tracer also revealed that binding occurred at receptors for naturally occurring pain-fighting endorphins.
“If somebody believes something will work,” says Zubieta, “that positive expectation by itself, through different connections in the brain, activates mechanisms that suppress pain. We saw a linear relationship between how people reported pain and how their brains released opioids.
People Need Both Drugs and Faith to Get Rid of Pain is an excellent article explaining current and past placebo research and understandings.