Does the Placebo Effect Work If You Know You’re Taking a Placebo?
Although it seems obvious that patients wouldn’t improve if they knew they were taking a placebo, researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMC) in conjuction with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), designed a study to see if this was true. What they found surprised them.
Placebos, or sugar pills, are regularly used in research so that neither the person getting the pill or the person administering the pill, know if they are taking the experimental medication. This kind of study is called a “double blind” study since both parties don’t know who is getting which pill and therefore can’t unwittingly influence the outcome of the study. What has always intrigued researchers is why some people do better on a placebo when there are no active ingredients in the medication.
In this study, 80 people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome were divided into two groups. One group knowingly recieved a placebo while the other group received no medication. Both groups were monitored for a 3 week period and at the end of the trial, 59% of patients in the placebo group reported symptom relief compared to 35% of the control group.
Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor at HMC and one of the study authors, reported, “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.”
Most astonishing, the placebo group reported that on other outcome measures, they improved to an extent equivalent to taking the most powerful IBS drugs available.
“These findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual,” said Kaptchuk.
For more information about this study, follow this link.