The placebo effect: More than just the sugar pill
A quest to deconstruct the placebo effect
leads New Yorker writer Michael Spector to Cambridge, to the Harvard office of Ted Kaptchuk, a trained acupuncturist who directs the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
In profiling Kaptchuk, a former 60s radical now battling the medical establishment, the piece seeks to determine how placebos can be deployed to actually care for patients — if at all. (Telling Kaptchuk quote: “What do I really want? Anything that gets people off the conveyor belts that move from the pharmaceutical houses to doctors and on to patients is worth considering. Anything. We need to stop pretending it’s all about molecular biology.”)
Oddly, the article offers a kind of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand treatment of the issue. Yes, there have been some promising studies examining placebos in the context of certain types of symptoms and illnesses (pain and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, for instance). But other studies show little or no benefit. Continue reading
Asthmatics report improvement in symptoms after taking placebo medications
Asthma can be terrifying. One minute you’re breathing, the next, you’re gasping for air. I’ll never forget my little brother, chest heaving, rushed to the emergency room during middle-of-the-night attacks.
But despite its dramatic and objectively physical nature, asthma is also a disease with an element of subjectivity.
That point is elegantly underscored in a new study just published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Harvard Medical School investigators found that when asthma patients were treated with the medication albuterol, their lung function improved significantly compared to those given placebo, or fake, treatments. However, and here’s the rub, when the same patients were asked to report how they were feeling — a subjective measure — placebo treatments turned out to be as effective as real medicine in helping to relieve asthma symptoms and alleviate patients’ discomfort.
Indeed, the placebo effect seemed to be on full display here: whether patients were on albuterol, the placebo inhaler or undergoing sham acupuncture (which feels real, but in fact uses trick needles that don’t penetrate the skin) they all reported significant symptomatic improvement compared to little improvement among patients who got no treatment at all.
The takeaway, researchers agree, is that there’s something therapeutic about the act of treatment itself, the ritual of care and the reassuring bond between doctor and patient that makes people feel better, whether or not their treatment includes pills or drugs with an active ingredient. Continue reading