The power of placebos
December 22nd, 2010
05:41 PM ET

The power of placebos

Hoping to get around the practice of deceiving patients with fake treatments, researchers tried to determine whether placebos, also known as dummy pills, would work even if the patients knew they weren't taking an active drug. 

Patients knowingly taking a placebo still found relief from symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE found.

 Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center divided eighty IBS patients into two groups.  The control group got no treatment at all.  The other group of volunteers was told to take one sugar pill twice a day. All of the patients were monitored for three weeks.

"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," said Ted Kaptchuk, study author and Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We told the patients that they didn't have to even believe in the placebo effect.  Just take the pills."

They did, and nearly twice as many patients in the placebo group had reduced symptoms compared to the control group.  In fact, the placebo patients relief was equal to taking the most powerful IBS medications. 

Kaptchuk says the study is a proof of principle.

"These findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual," said Kaptchuk. "I'm excited about studying this further. Placebo may work even if patients knows it is a placebo."

Anthony Lembo, study co-author and expert on IBS didn't think it would work. "I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo," Lembo said. "But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them."

Placebos usually contain an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution. They can sometimes improve a patient's condition simply because the person thinks they are taking a medication that will help.

Researchers say this study opens the door for larger trials on just how effective placebos can be for fully informed patients and might also give doctors another option, if they have ethical concerns about deceiving patients by giving them placebos.  Irritable bowel syndrome is a common gastrointestinal disorder also known as spastic colon. Approximately 20% of adult Americans have IBS.  Symptoms vary, but sufferers–more often women–experience abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.  It can cause a great deal of discomfort and pain.  According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) there are between 2.4 and 3.5 million IBS-related doctor visits each year in the U.S.

Kaptchuk has been involved in research on the placebo effect for nearly 20 years, trying to find ways to harness the power of placebo so that it might be valuable to clinicians.  Is it conceivable that placebos may be a possible treatment for some patients down the line?  Kaptchuk says he is not ready to go there–yet.  But he already has two new studies looking at its use in other illnesses.

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soundoff (299 Responses)
  1. Willie12345

    Is Obama a placebo ???

    December 22, 2010 at 18:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • johnp

      Is it working okay for you???

      December 22, 2010 at 18:52 | Report abuse |
    • Snowflakes

      Placebo = any medical ritual but.... nice try, man!

      December 22, 2010 at 20:04 | Report abuse |
  2. charles s

    Humans use many rituals in order to feel better. Many religious services make people feel better and they are fundamentally rituals.

    It has been estimated that "Something like 50% to 80% of the people who come in to the doctor have a self-limiting condition, or some problem that can't be treated or doesn't exist. The doctors themselves put the percentage at 50% to 80% . . . the exact figure varies from study to study. But it's clear that most office visits aren't really necessary."

    Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Natural-Health/1978-05-01/Medical-Self-Care.aspx?page=9#ixzz18tfJbfNe

    This means any care given by the doctor as long as it does not harm the patient will show an improvement by the patient. Therefor using placebos in most cases will help most patients. Of course if the patient has a serious problem, a placebo may only help relieve the symptoms and not the underlying condition. I remember when I was in the Army, almost everyone on sick call received a minor pain killer and it worked in most cases.

    December 22, 2010 at 21:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Leo

      Aaah, Ranger Candy. They gave out the 800 mg ibuprofen like they were skittles. The thing is, ibuprofen (especially at such high doses) is a strong anti-inflammatory. If a person has a minor injury that needs time to heal but is causing pain due to inflammation, the ibuprofen works as more than just a simple pain killer. It can actually facilitate healing by reducing inflammation.

      Of course, that says nothing of the idiot docs down at the CTMC who kept trying to pedal me off with ibuprofen and robitussen when I had pneumonia. That almost killed me.

      The problem with doctors refusing to believe that there's a real problem is that patients with REAL illnesses and injuries will not get the REAL treatment they need. Just because the placebo works for the 50% – 80% of patients who have self-limiting conditions (things that will heal on their own) or nothing serious at all, what becomes of the people who need treatment and don't get any?

      I swear, I've met so many doctors who will waffle for months or years playing "wait and see" while their patients suffer.

      December 23, 2010 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
  3. Bob

    Mind over matter! Half the drugs out there are probably Placebos with side-effects sold at very high prices! That is why a Cancer drug can be used to fight diaper rash!!!! Someone's making a lot of $$$$$$$...

    December 22, 2010 at 23:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jimbodiggy

    Wow. Maybe they just discovered that sugar is actually the cure for IBS...

    December 22, 2010 at 23:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dulinda


      December 23, 2010 at 03:29 | Report abuse |
  5. strangerthanfiction

    Here’s a theory: Suppose that beyond the 5 external senses (sight, hearing, etc), the mind also has many internal senses. Suppose that one of them is the ability to sense when an organism is taking actions that it believes are beneficial to its own well-being (regardless of whether those actions are effective).

    Wouldn’t it make evolutionary sense that it could stimulate other bodily defenses that aren’t normally under direct conscious control? That would give an evolutionary boost to individuals in that species who look out for their own well-being and would more quickly weed out individuals whose mental makeup doesn’t drive them to “take care of themselves”.
    Just a thought.

    December 23, 2010 at 03:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Dr Bill Toth

    This is a super exciting development....I look forward to additional researchers reproducing these results. I esepcially liked this finding; "In fact, the placebo patients relief was equal to taking the most powerful IBS medications." because with placebo...there are no nasty drug interactions or deadly side effects. The challenge will be the paradigm shift required for the masses to accept personal "Response-Ability" for their health. Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com

    December 23, 2010 at 07:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Vanwill

    When will we quit allowing big pharm to poison and impoverish us? Why not wake up to see that the human body is a fully stocked pharmacy? Need outside intervention? The Earth provides hundreds of thousands of natural remedies (for free). It's time the human race started returning to its roots.

    December 23, 2010 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nitrogen

      Sorry, but that is a really stupid idea. Western medicine is still needed in many instances. The point of this article is that people often manifest their psychological states in their body. In that case, giving them a fake magic pill will sometimes reverse the symptoms. "Going back to the earth" is a good way to get fiber, but will not treat actual physical disease.

      December 23, 2010 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
  8. Al

    So perhaps I should accept when some well-meaning friend offers me a homeopathic (i.e. "magic water") remedy.

    December 23, 2010 at 08:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. razzlea


    December 23, 2010 at 08:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. inghands

    CNN! I've been trying to sign up to leave comments but I can't get past the captcha's!


    December 23, 2010 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Bone doctor

    Finally an explanation why chiropractic works!

    December 23, 2010 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. kronsbeast

    If the placebo contains sugar, and the patient is hypoglycemic, then the effect is real.

    December 23, 2010 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Dolores Merrell, MA

    As a hypnotherapist I have had the opportunity to help individuals significantly reduce their IBS symptoms. The mind body connection is very powerful and accessible to most. One client was taking Imodium daily after she discovered she could not tolerate the usual IBS medications. After six sessions she is now able to enjoy going out to dinner, go on vacations and other events. The added benefit of hypnosis is that there are no side effects. http://www.AdvancedHypnosisServices.com

    December 23, 2010 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Seetheway

      I wouldn't want someone to mess with my mind and play god either!

      December 23, 2010 at 15:35 | Report abuse |
  14. Inupaaq

    "The Power of the [(DECEIVED !) BRAIN when given a] 'Placebo' :
    Researchers will tell you that it is NOT the 'Placebo' that makes ANY Improvement of the Malady being Treated – but RATHER the (BIOLOGICAL Computer !) bRAIN that RE-READS the DNA/RNA code in Biological MEMORY for the Body Part that NEEDS HEaling BACK to the Original Body that was CREATED by "reading the DNA/RNA code of the Brain's GENES.
    THAT is why we do NOT end up with an "Ear Lobe" on the Damaged Skin that is Healing on any OTHER Part of the Body.
    ? "PLAUSIBLE" ? !

    December 23, 2010 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Just My Opinion

    Maybe the patients thought the doctor was lying by saying he was giving them a sugar pill. If I were a patient I would probably think, “why is he telling me that this is a placebo? Doctors don’t tell people that they are giving them a sugar pill. He must be just saying this to gauge the true effect of the drug.” I could see how this type of thinking by an individual could ruin the experiment. If an individual has been told that they are being given a placebo, but they don’t believe the doctor, wouldn’t they believe they are being given the real thing? I wonder if they ask people afterwards if they initially thought the doctor was lying to them by stating that the pill was a fake. It’s not just what people are told…it’s what they believe.

    December 23, 2010 at 22:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Charmane Eastman, Ph.D.

      It's an Interesting thought, that the patients givien the placebo reasoned that they were given a real pill and that's why it helped. You are saying that if the patients think the pill will help them, then it will, even if it is a sugar placebo pill. That's exactly how placebos work.

      December 26, 2010 at 18:23 | Report abuse |
  16. Varlik

    While I’m not friend of big Pharm I have to say WHAT A LOAD of Garbage. This is the same line of crap that went on with Peptic Ulcers. Up until the mid 80s it was believed that Peptic Ulcers were the case of poor diet and stress. Mostly because of stress and thus were a psychosomatic disorder. Stress in the mind cause problems in the body. Today we know that bacteria causes Peptic Ulcers not stress. Sadly many people still believe the stress ulcer connection.

    The thing is that too many things are blamed on mental disorders MS was called Hysterical Paralysis by Doctors and was considered a mental disorder. Many folks were committed because of their mental disorder. And it wasn’t until MRI’s came into use in the early 80’s and Doctors could look into their bodies and see the physical effects on the body that things really began to change. Even in the early days of the AIDs epidemic many medical experts said it was psychosomatic.

    December 25, 2010 at 23:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. JSC22

    I think one thing this article showcases is the power of the mind. Think positive thoughts while taking your placebo pills and it will help many aspects of your life. Check out this great blog for some easy ways to get healthy including positive thinking: http://blog.mydiscoverhealth.com/

    December 27, 2010 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. jeffrey dach md

    Another placebo effect: A study published in JAMA reported that commonly used SSRI antidepressants are no better than placebo for most cases of depression. The authors reviewed 30 years of data and concluded that "the benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo may be minimal or nonexistent in patients with mild or moderate symptoms". ref JAMA 2010;303(1):47-53)

    For more:


    jeffrey dach md

    December 28, 2010 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
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