Placebos Work, Even When You Know They're Fake

Faux pills can trick your body into feeling better

If your doctor wrote you a prescription for a dummy pill and told you it would make you feel better, you’d probably toss the Rx in the trash and find a new physician -- stat. But odd as it may sound, writing a prescription for mock medication may soon be a new form of treatment. Turns out, fake drugs can significantly improve a person’s symptoms -- even if the patient knows it’s nothing but a sugar pill.

Scientists used to believe that the so-called placebo effect worked only if the people taking it were fooled into thinking that they were receiving a bona-fide treatment. Now, new research suggests that faux drugs can have a dramatic effect on a person’s health even when the patient knows it’s a sham.

The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, involved 80 volunteers who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that causes abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea or constipation. There are very few safe or effective treatments for the condition thought to be exacerbated by stress. The participants were divided into two groups: One received no treatment while the other was told to take a sugar pill twice a day for three weeks. The people in the pill group were told that they were taking “inactive pills, like sugar pills, without any medication in it.” At the same time, they were also advised that placebos have been shown in studies to produce “significant mind-body self-healing processes.”

Even the researchers were astounded by the results: 59 percent of those taking the sugar pill improved, versus 35 percent in the no-treatment group. According to the study’s co-author, Ted Kaptchuk, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, that’s as good as any other drug ever tested for IBS -- and it comes without the side effects that have caused some to be pulled from the market.

“I didn’t think it would work. I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them,” said senior author and IBS expert Anthony Lembo in a written statement. Placebos are thought to help activate the body’s own healing mechanisms. Though they can’t shrink tumors, they appear to help alleviate pain, anxiety, depression, low libido, IBS and even the tremors of Parkinson’s. Kaptchuk’s past research suggests that a doctor’s bedside manner is critical in making a placebo work. In other words, the patient has to feel like he or she is being listened to and is receiving quality care.

Physicians have long known that sugar pills can help people with a wide range of illnesses feel better -- and many have even exploited it. A 2008 survey published in the British Medical Journal shows that 50 percent of U.S. doctors have given patients placebos instead of actual medicine, without their patient’s knowledge. Regardless of whether it helps, such practices are considered unethical and deceptive. For this reason, researchers of this study hoped to find a way to harness the very real power of placebos, without having to lie to patients. While the results are promising, authors Lembo and Kaptchuk caution that more research is needed to confirm their findings.

Until then, I wonder if we, as patients, can trick our bodies into healing mode with our own placebo experiments. If feeling better comes down to believing we’re getting top-notch medical treatment, we probably shouldn’t settle for doctors who make us feel rushed or unheard. Instead, seeking out responsive doctors that we trust could put us on the path to greater wellness.

How would you feel if your doctor offered you a placebo pill for your symptoms? Chime in below.

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