Sugar Pills Help, Even When Patients are Aware of Them

A new study found that placebos help patients, even when they know it's fake.

ByABC News
December 22, 2010, 5:07 PM

Dec. 23, 2010— -- Could you be healed by the power of a placebo drug—even when you know it's a fake?

It might sound strange to some, but a new study published in the most recent issue of PLoS One may have turned the conventional idea of a placebo on its head. Researchers found that placebo pills benefited patients, even when doctors explained that they were only taking sugar pills.

"Until now, doctors have thought they had to lie about the placebo pill in order to tap into the effects," said Dr. Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston. "But we said, 'Let's see if placebos can work when they're applied in an honest way.'"

And, according to this study, it seems they did.

Researchers divided 80 study participants who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, into two groups. One group received no treatment for their condition while the other received sugar pills that they took twice a day.

Three weeks later, 59 percent of study participants who knowingly took the placebos reported reduced symptoms and adequate relief for their IBS symptoms, while only 35 percent of the control group reported similar results.

The placebo effect has long been based on positive thinking, with people taking fake pills that they believe to be real.

"I was hopeful from the beginning," said Kaptchuk. "I thought [the study] would work and it would be very subversive."

The motivation for the study came on the heels of a 2008 survey published in the journal BMJ which found that half of American doctors had given their patients placebos in place of actual medication.

When asked whether they had used placebos for psychological benefits in the patients, most doctors responded yes in the 2008 survey.

This practice goes against advice from the American Medical Association, which discourages placebos in a clinical setting, unless the patient is aware and agrees to it.

But physicians said this should not take away from the importance of placebos, as they can benefit a patient's well-being and help test new medicines in randomized trials.