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Placebo Effect Works Even If Patients Know They’re Getting A Sham Drug

Posted Dec 23 2010 5:48pm

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome improved despite pill bottles being labelled ‘placebo’. Photograph: Nitschkefoto/Alamy
Patients can benefit from being treated with sham drugs even if they are told they contain no active ingredient, scientists have found. The finding suggests that the placebo effect could work without the need for any deception on the part of the doctor, as had been previously thought.

When a patient undergoes a sham treatment for a disorder – such as taking a sugar pill – but still experiences a measurable improvement in their condition this is known as the placebo effect. It was widely thought, however, that the effect only works if the patient believes that the treatment they are receiving contains an active ingredient. Dummy treatments that might elicit the placebo effect are often used in clinical trials as a comparison group to allow scientists to measure the additional effects of experimental medicines.

To investigate the limits of placebo, Prof Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center divided 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) into two groups: one received no treatment and the other was given dummy pills to take twice a day. The second group was told by the doctors that they would be taking “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS-symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes”.

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