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Placebos may work by creating positive expectations


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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204720204577128873886471982.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

 

Why Placebos Work Wonders

From Weight Loss To Fertility, New Legitimacy For 'Fake' Treatments

 

By SHIRLEY S. WANG JANUARY 3, 2012 Wall Street Journal

 

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A particular mind-set or belief about one's body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms as well as changes in appetite, brain chemicals and even vision, several recent studies have found, highlighting how fundamentally the mind and body are connected.

 

It doesn't seem to matter whether people know they are getting a placebo and not a "real" treatment. One study demonstrated a strong placebo effect in subjects who were told they were getting a sugar pill with no active ingredient.

 

Placebo treatments are sometimes used in some clinical practices. In a 2008 survey of nearly 700 internists and rheumatologists published in the British Medical Journal, about half said they prescribe placebos on a regular basis. The most popular were over-the-counter painkillers and vitamins. Very few physicians said they relied on sugar pills or saline injections. The American Medical Association says a placebo can't be given simply to soothe a difficult patient, and it can be used only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.

 

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Hotel-room attendants who were told they were getting a good workout at their jobs showed a significant decrease in weight, blood pressure and body fat after four weeks, in a study published in Psychological Science in 2007 and conducted by Alia Crum, a Yale graduate student, and Ellen Langer, a professor in the psychology department at Harvard. Employees who did the same work but weren't told about exercise showed no change in weight. Neither group reported changes in physical activity or diet.

 

Patients in a recent study were treated with placebos for an induced asthma attack. They reported feeling just as good as when they received an active treatment with albuterol.

 

Another study, published last year in the journal Health Psychology, shows how mind-set can affect an individual's appetite and production of a gut peptide called ghrelin (GREL-in), which is involved in the feeling of satisfaction after eating. Ghrelin levels are supposed to rise when the body needs food and fall proportionally as calories are consumed, telling the brain the body is no longer hungry and doesn't need to search out more food.

 

Yet the data show ghrelin levels depended on how many calories participants were told they were consuming, not how many they actually consumed. When told a milkshake they were about to drink had 620 calories and was "indulgent," the participants' ghrelin levels fell more—the brain perceived it was satisfied more quickly—than when they were told the shake had 120 calories and was "sensible."

 

The results may offer a physiological explanation of why eating diet foods can feel so unsatisfying, says Ms. Crum, first author on the study. "That mind-set of dieting is telling the body you're not getting enough."

 

Studies across medical conditions including depression, migraines and Parkinson's disease have found that supposedly inert treatments, like sugar pills, sham surgery and sham acupuncture, can yield striking effects. A 2001 study published in Science found that placebo was effective at improving Parkinson's disease symptoms at a magnitude similar to real medication. The placebo actually induced the brain to produce greater amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter known to be useful in treating the disease.

 

At times, a weaker placebo effect might be desired. In trials of experimental drug treatments for dementia, depression and other cognitive or psychiatric conditions, where one patient group takes medication and the other takes a sugar pill, it can be difficult to demonstrate that the medicine works because the placebo effect is so strong.

 

With depression, an estimated 30% to 45% of patients—or even more, in some studies—will respond to a placebo, according to a review published in December in Clinical Therapeutics. An additional 5% of patients were helped by an antidepressant in cases of mild depression, and an additional 16% in cases of severe depression. (The clinically meaningful cutoff for additional benefit was 11%.)

 

Fertility rates have been found to improve in women getting a placebo, perhaps because they experience a decrease in stress. A recent randomized trial of women with polycystic ovarian syndrome found that 15%, or 5 of 33, got pregnant while taking placebo over a six-month period, compared with 22%, or 7 of 32, who got the drug—a statistically insignificant difference. Other studies have demonstrated pregnancy rates as high as 40% in placebo groups.

 

Ted Kaptchuk, director of Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, and colleagues demonstrated that deception isn't necessary for the placebo effect to work. Eighty patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic gastrointestinal disorder, were assigned either a placebo or no treatment. Patients in the placebo group got pills described to them as being made with an inert substance and showing in studies to improve symptoms via "mind-body self-healing processes." Participants were told they didn't have to believe in the placebo effect but should take the pills anyway, Dr. Kaptchuk says. After three weeks, placebo-group patients reported feelings of relief, significant reduction in some symptoms and some improvement in quality of life.

 

Why did the placebo work—even after patients were told they weren't getting real medicine? Expectations play a role, Dr. Kaptchuk says. Even more likely is that patients were conditioned to a positive environment, and the innovative approach and daily ritual of taking the pill created an openness to change, he says.

 

Do placebos work on the actual condition, or on patients' perception of their symptoms? In a study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Kaptchuk's team rotated 46 asthma patients through each of four types of treatment: no treatment at all, an albuterol inhaler, a placebo inhaler and sham acupuncture. As each participant got each treatment, researchers induced an asthma attack and measured the participant's lung function and perception of symptoms. The albuterol improved measured lung function compared with placebo. But the patients reported feeling just as good whether getting placebo or the active treatment.

 

"Right now, I think evidence is that placebo changes not the underlying biology of an illness, but the way a person experiences or reacts to an illness," Dr. Kaptchuk says.

 

Placebo can be more effective than the intended treatment. In a trial published in the journal Menopause in 2007, 103 women who had menopausal hot flashes got either five weeks of real acupuncture, or five weeks of sham acupuncture, where needles weren't placed in accepted therapeutic positions. A week after treatments ended, only some 60% of participants in both groups reported hot flashes—a robust immediate placebo effect. Seven weeks post-treatment, though, 55% of patients in the sham acupuncture group reported hot flashes, compared with 73% in the real acupuncture group.

 

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Write to Shirley S. Wang at shirley.wang@wsj.com

This is not medical advice. Discuss any decisions about your medical care with a knowledgeable medical practitioner.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has surpassed our humanity." -- Albert Einstein

All postings © copyrighted.

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What difference have they seen in placebo effect for treatments that take a few weeks to work (Q) It seems the placebo effect would be stronger if subject knows it may take awhile to work ~could be interesting to design study for 'new fast-acting antidepressant' and see how fast the placebo kicked in

Are study subjects told how long it takes for drug to act (Q)

Study design/length gives clues (i assume)

Pristiq tapered over 8 months ending Spring 2011 after 18 years of polydrugging that began w/Zoloft for fatigue/general malaise (not mood). CURRENT: 1mg Klonopin qhs (SSRI bruxism), 75mg trazodone qhs, various hormonesLitigation for 11 years for Work-related injury, settled 2004. Involuntary medical retirement in 2001 (age 39). 2012 - brain MRI showing diffuse, chronic cerebrovascular damage/demyelination possibly vasculitis/cerebritis. Dx w/autoimmune polyendocrine failure.<p>2013 - Dx w/CNS Sjogren's Lupus (FANA antibodies first appeared in 1997 but missed by doc).

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There's a lot of research on the placebo effect, Barb. Read up on it and let us know what you find to answer those very good questions!

This is not medical advice. Discuss any decisions about your medical care with a knowledgeable medical practitioner.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has surpassed our humanity." -- Albert Einstein

All postings © copyrighted.

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