Placebos work -- even without deception
For most of us, the "placebo effect" is synonymous with the power of positive thinking; it works because you believe you're taking a real drug. But a new study rattles this assumption. Researchers at Harvard Medical School's Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have found that placebos work even when administered without the seemingly requisite deception.
The study is published December 22 in PLoS ONE.
Placebos—or dummy pills—are typically used in clinical trials as controls for potential new medications. Even though they contain no active ingredients, patients often respond to them. In fact, data on placebos is so compelling that many American physicians (one study estimates 50 percent) secretly give placebos to unsuspecting patients.
Because such "deception" is ethically questionable, HMS associate professor of medicine Ted Kaptchuk teamed up with colleagues at BIDMC to explore whether or not the power of placebos can be harnessed honestly and respectfully.
To do this, 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were divided into two groups: one group, the controls, received no treatment, while the other group received a regimen of placebos—honestly described as "like sugar pills"—which they were instructed to take twice daily.
"Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had 'placebo' printed on the bottle," says Kaptchuk. "We told the patients that they didn't have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills."
For a three-week period, the patients were monitored. By the end of the trial, nearly twice as many patients treated with the placebo reported adequate symptom relief as compared to the control group (59 percent vs. 35 percent). Also, on other outcome measures, patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications.
"I didn't think it would work," says senior author Anthony Lembo, HMS associate professor of medicine at BIDMC and an expert on IBS. "I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them."
The authors caution that this study is small and limited in scope and simply opens the door to the notion that placebos are effective even for the fully informed patient—a hypothesis that will need to be confirmed in larger trials.
"Nevertheless," says Kaptchuk, "these findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual. I'm excited about studying this further. Placebo may work even if patients knows it is a placebo."
Source: Harvard Medical School
- Rifaximin provides significant relief of irritable bowel syndrome symptomsWed, 5 Jan 2011, 17:33:23 EST
- Hypnotherapy eases irritable bowel syndrome symptomsThu, 18 Mar 2010, 0:17:23 EDT
- Placebo successful in treating women with sexual dysfunctionThu, 16 Sep 2010, 0:43:30 EDT
- Self-directed behavioral IBS treatment rapidly relieves even the most severe symptomsWed, 12 May 2010, 11:52:56 EDT
- Bacterial phylotype alterations in irritable bowel syndromeFri, 15 Jan 2010, 12:11:34 EST
Articles on the same topic
- Placebos work -- even without deceptionWed, 22 Dec 2010, 17:33:38 EST
- Placebos Work Even When Patients Know They're Dummy Pillsfrom Live ScienceThu, 23 Dec 2010, 9:01:44 EST
- Placebos work -- even without deceptionfrom Science DailyWed, 22 Dec 2010, 22:30:35 EST
- Pills labelled 'placebo' helped, MDs findfrom CBC: HealthWed, 22 Dec 2010, 20:02:57 EST
- Placebos work, even when patients know they're phony, study showsfrom LA Times - ScienceWed, 22 Dec 2010, 19:32:29 EST
- Placebos work -- even without deceptionfrom PhysorgWed, 22 Dec 2010, 18:00:38 EST
- Placebos work — even without deceptionfrom Harvard ScienceWed, 22 Dec 2010, 17:30:33 EST
- Placebos help, even when patients know about themfrom Reuters:ScienceWed, 22 Dec 2010, 17:30:28 EST
- These Fake Pills May Help You Feel Betterfrom Science NOWWed, 22 Dec 2010, 17:30:26 EST
- Placebo effect works even if patients know they're getting a sham drugfrom The Guardian - ScienceWed, 22 Dec 2010, 17:00:49 EST
Latest Science NewsletterGet the latest and most popular science news articles of the week in your Inbox! It's free!
Learn more about
Check out our next project, Biology.Net
From other science news sites
Popular science news articles
- Allosaurus fed more like a falcon than a crocodile, new study finds
- Invasive crazy ants are displacing fire ants in areas throughout southeastern US
- Beautiful 'flowers' self-assemble in a beaker
- Scientific insurgents say 'Journal Impact Factors' distort science
- GPS solution provides 3-minute tsunami alerts