The simple ritual of taking a pill—even an inactive one—may be enough to produce beneficial results in some people. A study published in the journal PLoS One (2010; 5 , 1–7), by the Public Library of Science, found that some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experienced symptom relief from taking a placebo, even when they knew the pill had no active pharmaceutical ingredients.
Lead investigator Ted Kaptchuk, OMD, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, wanted to explore whether the power of placebos could be harnessed. Many studies show that placebos work for certain patients. Most scientists, however, believe that the “placebo effect” is the result of positive thinking and that the response would be neutralized if patients knew their treatment was a placebo. This assumption had not been tested before this study.
Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston randomized 80 patients with IBS to either a control group, whose members received no treatment, or a placebo group, whose members were told that the pills they would be taking twice daily for 3 weeks were dummy pills. The pills came in a bottle labeled “placebo.” All patients were asked to refrain from making any major lifestyle changes during the study.
Investigators assessed results after 11 days and at the 21-day endpoint by conducting interviews with patients regarding how they felt before and after the study, how severe their symptoms were and so on. The researcher who conducted the assessments did not know which subjects had been assigned to which groups.
Approximately 59% of those in the placebo group reported adequate relief from symptoms, compared with 35% in the control group. Kaptchuk said, “These findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual. I’m excited about studying this further.” Limitations of the study included its small sample size and the fact that study subjects might not have reflected the population at large. More research was recommended.