Around half of the 97 patients with chronic lower back pain were given a pill bottle, with the word ‘Placebo’ printed on it—after they had been told that a placebo contains no active ingredient—along with a standard NSAID (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug) painkiller, and the rest of the group was given just the painkiller.
After taking the pills twice a day for three weeks, the patients given the placebo reported a 30 per cent reduction in pain compared to a 9 per cent decrease among those given only an NSAID.
Other chronic problems such as fatigue, depression, and common digestive or urinary symptoms might also respond well to placebo where the patient is told beforehand, say researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.
Lead researcher Ted Kaptchuk, who is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, reckons that the placebo works because it’s part of a process that includes interaction with a nurse or physician, taking pills and “all the rituals and symbols of our healthcare system,” he says.
The results “turn our understanding of the placebo effect on its head,” says Prof Kaptchuk. In most medical trials, the patient isn’t told that he or she has been given a placebo so that any benefits must therefore be all “in the mind.”
But it seems our mind doesn’t care whether or not it knows we’re taking the dummy pill.