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Placebos Work Even When Patients Aren't Fooled

Placebos - pills that have no active ingredients - are used in scientific studies as controls, and investigations are often designed so that neither patients nor doctors know who is getting the fake and who is getting the real drug. Placebos are effective about one-third of the time anyway because patients expect to feel better when given what they think is medication. Now a study has found that they can work even when patients know they're getting a blank instead of a bullet. Here, 80 individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were divided into two groups. The first received no treatment; the second were given what were described as "sugar pills" to take twice a day for three weeks. At that point, 59 percent of the patients who used the placebos reported "adequate symptom relief" compared to 35 percent of those who had no treatment. The researchers said that the improvement was "roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications" and suggested that performing the "medical ritual" of taking pills may be of significant benefit and needs more study. The results were published in the journal PLoS ONE on Dec. 22, 2010.

Related: Placebos for kids?

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Reader Comments (2)

If you read "How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body" by David Hamilton (published 2008), you'll see a lot of research already pointing this way. He mentions a lot of different studies using the placebo. Of more interest to me was the fact that even when the pharmaceutical companies filter out those participants prone to the placebo effect, more people then become prone, showing the placebo effect is more important than mainstream science (still) gives it credit for.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

The patients were told they were being given “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.” In other words, there was a very strong inference that the pills, even though labeled "placebo," were going to work. So this study merely confirms that, for certain conditions, it helps to believe that what your physician is giving you will help, especially if your physician leaves you with a very strong impression that it will.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpk
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