The Placebo Effect: Does It Exist?

(Ivanhoe Newswire)–Placebos are often referred to as “dummy pills” in research trials for new drug therapies, but whether or not placebos can actually influence objective measures of disease has been unclear. A recent study led by Harvard Medical School investigators at Brigham and Women’s hospital (BWH) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, analyzed the impact of two placebo treatments versus standard medical treatments in asthma patients.

The study concluded that when it came to patient-reported outcomes, placebos were equally as effective as the standard medical treatment in helping to relieve patients’ discomfort and their self-described asthma symptoms.

The purpose of this study was to see if the placebo effect actually exists. The study examined 39 patients diagnosed with chronic asthma that were randomly assigned to undergo treatment with an active albuterol inhaler (the standard medical treatment), with a placebo albuterol inhaler, with a shame acupuncture, or with no intervention at all. The study’s conclusion showed that the treatment with the albuterol inhaler resulted in a 20 percent increase in maximum forced expiratory volume in one second. This result compared with an increase of about seven percent for each of the two placebo treatments as well as the “no treatment” control.

Michael Wechsler, M.D., Associate Director of the Asthma Research Center at BWH and assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School was quoted stating, “Since there was no difference between either of the placebo treatments and the placebo “Ëœcontrol’ [no treatment], we can report that there was no objective placebo effect with regard to change in lung function.” Patient’s descriptions of their systems suggest however that a subjective placebo effect does exist. Patients reported statistically significant symptomatic improvement with albuterol, as well as with the placebo inhaler and with the sham acupuncture.

Upon examining the results, researchers involved in the study were surprised to find that there was no placebo effect in this experiment at first glance. Once they reviewed patients’ subjective descriptions of how they felt however, for both the active treatment and the placebo treatment, it became very apparent that the placebos were as effective as the active drug in helping patients to feel better.

Ted Kaptchuk, senior author of the study and director of the program in placebo studies at BIDMC and associate professor of medicine at HMS was quoted saying, “It is clear that for the patient, the ritual treatment can be very powerful. This study suggests that in addition to active therapies for fixing diseases, the idea of receiving care is a critical component of what patient’s value in health care. In a climate of patient dissatisfaction, this may be an important lesson.”

SOURCE: The New England Journal of Medicine, July 13, 2011

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