A radical new hypothesis in medicine: give patients drugs they know don’t work

The placebo effect is weirder and potentially more useful than we imagined. Harvard medicine professor Ted Kaptchuk is at the bleeding edge of a radical new treatment in medicine: giving patients pills that don’t work.

“Our patients tell us it’s nuts,” he says. “The doctors think it’s nuts. And we just do it. And we’ve been getting good results.”

In medicine, placebo pills are typically used as a tool to test the effectiveness of real drugs. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, which researchers consider the gold standard for testing a drug’s effects, patients (and the doctors running the trial) don’t know who’s taking the real drug and who’s taking the placebo.

Kaptchuk has a twist on this: His own randomized controlled trials found that giving patients open-label placebos — sugar pills that the doctors admit are sugar pills — improved symptoms of certain chronic conditions that are among the hardest for doctors to treat, including irritable bowel syndrome and lower back pain. And he wonders if chronic fatigue — a hard-to-define, hard-to-treat, but still debilitating condition — will be a good future target for this research …

Read more here.

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