These Fake Pills May Help You Feel Better
Confronted with a patient suffering from pain or a chronic disease for which no drugs are effective, doctors sometimes prescribe a sugar pill or vitamin. Although these "medications" have no active ingredients, patients often feel better. It's called the "placebo effect," and most scientists would say that it works only if the patient doesn't know the pill is fake. But a new clinical trial shows that patients can get better on a placebo even if they know the truth.
"It's a fascinating, innovative, and important study," says Klaus Linde, who studies complementary and alternative medicine at the Technical University in Munich, Germany.
Lead author Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School in Boston says he set up the trial in part because doctors seem to be struggling with the placebo problem. In a survey among 1200 internists and rheumatologists that Kaptchuk and others published in 2008, roughly half of participants admitted having prescribed placebos. Sometimes, these were truly inactive pills, but very often, they were "impure placebos": vitamins, over-the-counter pain killers, antibiotics, or even sedatives that the physicians believed had no specific action on the disease but might provide a placebo benefit.
Few were upfront with the patients about this, the study showed: Many described the treatment as "a medicine not typically used for your condition that might benefit you," or words to that effect. That kind of mild deception is widely considered unethical, says Kaptchuk. It also may be unnecessary, according to the new study.