For most of us, the “placebo effect” means the power of positive thinking. If what you are taking is supposed to work, you believe it does. Even though it is not the drug or supplement you think it is.
But a new study turns this idea on its head and paints an interesting canvas.
U.S. researchers have found that placebos work even when people know they are placebos in a study published in “PLoS ONE.” Could placebos actually work?
They are known as dummy pills, used often in clinical trials as “controls” to compare new medications to. Even though they contain no active ingredients, patients often respond to them. In fact, such responses are so compelling that many American physicians secretly give placebos to unsuspecting patients.
Because that kind of deception is not ethical, researchers tried to explore whether or not the power of placebos can be harnessed honestly and respectfully.
They took 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and split them into two groups. One consisted of the controls, receiving no treatment at all. The other received a regimen of placebos, which were honestly described to be “like sugar pills.” Patients knew that the pills had no active ingredients. The word “placebo” was emblazoned on the bottle they came from. People took them twice daily.
For a three-week period, patients were monitored. By the end, nearly twice as many patients treated with the placebo reported adequate symptom relief as compared to the control group. The numbers: 59% compared to 35%. Also, on other outcome measures, patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree that was comparable to the strongest IBS medications.
The researchers were very surprised. They didn’t think it could work. Incredibly, placebos worked to the extent that people taking them felt their symptoms reduced. In the end, that is all that really matters when talking about symptoms — that you don’t feel them or experience them less.
The door is open now: can placebos be effective even for the fully informed patient? What would the placebo effect be called then? What value is there in medical ritual? Because you pop a pill to battle a condition, will you believe deep down that it will work? More than that, will you feel it work?