The placebo effect has been a raging topic for several years, gaining momentum over the past one year with lab trials being conducted to analyze physiological responses to them. A new study, published in the Feb1 issue of the British Medical Journal examines the perceptible effect of types of placebo devices Vs pills on patients administered over a period of time.
Earlier studies used placebos to gauge the effectiveness of novel treatment methods, but this time researchers were keen on examining the effects of different types of placebos. Ted Kaptchuk, assistant professor of medicine and associate director of the Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies and the Osher Institute at Harvard Medical School has called it an "upside down research," further explaining that it was aimed at testing whether a placebo device was better off than a passive pill.
The study was conducted in two phases involving 270 people who were suffering severe pain in the arm. The first phase targeted 135 patients, administered a pseudo acupuncture treatment and another 135, who were prescribed a placebo pill for 2 weeks. The results showed no marked difference between the effects of the pill vs. the device, in this phase.
The second phase began after shuffling the groups, to test half the patients with a pseudo acupuncture treatment and half with the placebo pill, duration extended to 4 weeks and six weeks respectively. The findings reported that the patients receiving the pseudo acupuncture treatment for 4 weeks actually felt immense relief than the patients who had taken the placebo pill. "These findings suggest that the medical ritual of a device can deliver an enhanced placebo effect beyond that of a placebo pill. There are many conditions in which ritual is irrelevant when compared with drugs, such as in treatment of a bacterial infection," said Kaptchuk, "but the other extreme may also be true. In some cases, the ritual may be the critical component."
Findings also suggested that the feeling of relief reported by patients is purely subjective, entirely relying on the pain threshold of the patients and the status of the condition. On a more objective analysis, the responses to the two placebos were no different, conveying an underlying probability - that side effects communicated by medical specialists to the patients, could actually fuel an experience of them.