A new study shows that the placebo effect may be even more powerful than we thought.
The emerging field of placebo research has revealed that the body’s repertoire of resilience contains a powerful self-healing network that can help reduce pain and inflammation, lower the production of stress chemicals like cortisol, and even tame high blood pressure and the tremors of Parkinson’s disease. Jumpstarting this network requires nothing more or less than a belief that one is receiving effective treatment — in the form of a pill, a capsule, talk therapy, injection, IV, or acupuncture needle.
Finding effective treatments for symptoms that are primarily subjective, that carry few to no risks or side effects, sounds fantastic. So why aren’t placebos used openly?
The medical establishment’s ethical problem with placebo treatment boils down to the notion that for fake drugs to be effective, doctors must lie to their patients. It has been widely assumed that if a patient discovers that he or she is taking a placebo, the mind/body password will no longer unlock the network, and the magic pills will cease to do their job.
But we may not have to worry about that for long. The new study has found that placebos work even when the patent is fully aware that there is no active ingredient in their “medication.”
In a previous study published in the British Medical Journal in 2008, Kaptchuk and Kirsch demonstrated that placebo treatment can be highly effective for alleviating the symptoms of (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). This time, however, instead of the trial being “blinded,” it was “open.” That is, the volunteers in the placebo group knew that they were getting only inert pills — which they were instructed to take religiously, twice a day. They were also informed that, just as Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to drool at the sound of a bell, the body could be trained to activate its own built-in healing network by the act of swallowing a pill. Meet the ethical placebo: a powerfully effective faux medication that meets all the standards of informed consent.
Read the whole article by Steve Silberman (including an interview with one of the study’s researchers, Irving Kirsch) at NeuroTribes.
UPDATE: Orac weighs in with his concerns about the study.
For a refresher on the placebo effect, I’ll let Ben Goldacre explain.