Taking a placebo — a fake pill — reduces back pain 30% even when people know it is fake.
Professor Ted Kaptchuk, one of the study’s authors, explained:
“These findings turn our understanding of the placebo effect on its head.
This new research demonstrates that the placebo effect is not necessarily elicited by patients’ conscious expectation that they are getting an active medicine, as long thought.
Taking a pill in the context of a patient-clinician relationship — even if you know it’s a placebo — is a ritual that changes symptoms and probably activates regions of the brain that modulate symptoms.”
It had been thought that the so-called ‘placebo effect’ relies on patient’s beliefs about what the fake pill will do for them.
Belief being so powerful, it can change the experience of pain dramatically.
But this study questions all that.
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In the research, patients with lower back pain either had traditional treatment or a placebo pill in addition to the traditional treatment.
The traditional treatment was usually ibuprofen.
Patients taking the pills labelled ‘placebo pills’ saw 30% reductions in usual and maximum pain, as well as a 29% reduction in pain-related disability.
Equivalent figures for those taking ibuprofen, or similar, was 9% reduction in usual pain, 16% reduction in maximum pain and no improvement for pain-related disability.
Professor Kaptchuk said:
“It’s the benefit of being immersed in treatment: interacting with a physician or nurse, taking pills, all the rituals and symbols of our healthcare system.
The body responds to that.”
Dr Claudia Carvalho, the study’s first author, said:
“Our findings demonstrate the placebo effect can be elicited without deception.
Patients were interested in what would happen and enjoyed this novel approach to their pain.
They felt empowered.”
Placebos could also be used to treat some other ailments such as depression, fatigue and common digestive disorders.
Dr Carvalho said:
“You’re never going to shrink a tumor or unclog an artery with placebo intervention.
It’s not a cure-all, but it makes people feel better, for sure.
Our lab is saying you can’t throw the placebo into the trash can.
It has clinical meaning, it’s statically significant, and it relieves patients. It’s essential to what medicine means.
Taking placebo pills to relieve symptoms without a warm and empathic relationship with a health-care provider relationship probably would not work.”
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The study was published in the journal Pain (Carvalho et al., 2016).