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Belief and suggestion ease symptoms

26th August 2011

Researchers in the United States say that the placebo effect, a positive benefit derived from the belief that a treatment will work, works even when people know they are getting a placebo.

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A team led by researchers at the Harvard Medical School said they had set out to investigate whether or not it was necessary to lie to study subjects who were getting a placebo for the effect to work.

Writing in the online open-access journal PLoS One, they said previous research had shown that placebo treatment could significantly influence subjective symptoms.

But previous studies have always been based on the assumption that the placebo response requires some form of concealment or deception.

To test this assumption, the researchers carried out a randomised, controlled clinical trial over a three-week period to study the placebo effect in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The subjects, who were 70% female and mostly in their middle years, were divided into two groups.

One group was given sugar pills, which were described as "placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes."

Researchers said previous research on mind-body interaction had shown this statement to be true.

The control group was simply monitored, with the same level of contact with health workers as the first group received.

By the end of the three-week trial, the group that knowingly took the placebo pills reported a greater improvement in symptoms than the control group.

They also reported reduced symptom severity and adequate levels of relief from the treatment, as well as improved quality of life at the end of the three-week period.

They concluded that placebos administered without deception may be an effective treatment for IBS.

However, experts said further research was needed into the effects of open placebo medication in IBS and also other conditions.

The research team included psychologists from the University of Hull and Endicott College, as well as bioethics experts from the National Institutes of Health.

The study suggests that anyone could use the placebo effect to convince themselves that any form of treatment will work for us.

Psychologists said the results showed that it was important for healing for people to have something to believe in.

Visualisation that a condition will improve, as well as voicing encouragement or hopes for an improved outcome could both be effective ways to boost conventional medical interventions, they say.


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