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Placebo effect works even without deception--study

In a bid to assess whether placebos work even without deception, the researchers conducted a novel experiment called the 'mind-body' therapy.

Though placebos have long been a major issue of debate in the serious practice of pharmacology, with some medical experts considering them as just a nuisance variable, there is little doubt that the harmless sugar pills can improve the health of some patients.

Now, a surprising new study found that taking an inert drug benefited patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) even when they are told quite openly that their treatment regimen comprised of nothing more than fake pills.

An novel experiment conducted
In a bid to assess whether placebos work even without deception, the researchers conducted a novel experiment called the 'mind-body' therapy.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel and Harvard Medical School, stated, "We know expectation and anxiety reduction are important in healing but we wanted to see what taking pills in the context of a trusting relationship with a physician would do. We wanted to identify the role of the ritual of medicine in healing.”

For the purpose of the study, they enrolled 80 people with an average age of 47 suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, a condition characterized by abdominal pain.

The study subjects were split into two groups. Half the patients were given a bottle of inert pills and asked to take them twice daily.

The second group which served as the control was given no treatment at all.

Kaptchuk stated, “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.

"We told the patients that they didn't have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills."

Revelations of the study
At the close of a three-week study period, the investigators noted that 59 percent of the people taking the placebo reported adequate relief and improvement in symptoms of IBS compared with 35 percent in the non-treatment group.

Kaptchuk stated, "The placebo was almost twice as effective as the control. That would be a great result if it was seen in a normal clinical trial of a drug."

He added, “These findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the performance of medical ritual. Placebo may work even if patients know it is a placebo."

At the close of a three-week study period, the investigators noted that 59 percent of the people taking the placebo reported adequate relief and improvement in symptoms of IBS compared with 35 percent in the non-treatment group.

Need for further studies
Though the study exhibited benefits, the researchers concede that it was small and of short duration and there is need for further research to substantiate the findings.

The authors concluded, "Placebos administered without deception may be an effective treatment for IBS. Further research is warranted in IBS, and perhaps other conditions, to elucidate whether physicians can benefit patients using placebos consistent with informed consent.”

The study was funded by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Osher Research Center at Harvard Medical School.

The new study published in the December 22 issue of the Public Library of Science journal 'PLoS ONE.'