Science-- there's something for everyone

Saturday, January 8, 2011

No deception necessary for placebos

Placebos are simply inert substances that don’t contain any ingredients known to counteract the ailment in question. They are so effective that many doctors knowingly prescribe them to their patients. It has long been assumed that for placebos to work, doctors must deceive their patients into believing that the prescription is for an active, effective drug, not a sugar pill. That turns out not to be the case.

Ted Kaptchuk from Harvard Medical School and his colleagues from Harvard, Endicott College, University of Hull, and the NIH were interested to see what would happen if doctors were open and honest about their use of placebos. To that end, they divided 80 volunteers suffering from irritable bowl syndrome (IBS) into two groups. One group received no treatment whatsoever. The second group received a supply of sugar pills that were clearly labeled ‘placebo’. This group was instructed to take the sugar pills twice a day, even though they contained no active ingredients.

To the great surprise of the researchers, nearly twice as many of the placebo-using patients reported that their symptoms had improved as compared to the no-treatment group. In fact, the improvement rivaled that of patients taking actual IBS medications.

The authors caution that larger trials must be conducted before doctors begin openly offering their patients placebos. Still, this study does lend credence to the fact that in medicine as in life, honesty is the best policy.