(CBS) Imagine your doctor gives you fake medication and tells you it's nothing more than a sugar pill. Would it still work?
Incredibly, according to a new study of patients with irritable bowel syndrome, the placebo effect, even when patients were in on the secret, worked almost as well as the leading medication on the market.
It's also a lot cheaper. And the best part about placebo - no side effects.
"I didn't think it would work," said senior author and Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine at Anthony Lembo in a statement. "I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them."
Researchers at the Harvard Medical School's Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center split 80 patients into two groups. One group was given placebos and informed of it. The other group was given nothing.
"Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had 'placebo' printed on the bottle," said Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine Ted Kaptchuk. "We told the patients that they didn't have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills."
After three weeks. the placebo group reported adequate symptom relief at double the rate of the group told to do nothing (59 percent vs. 35 percent). And those results are about as good as the leading irritable bowel syndrome drugs on the market.
Researchers sounded the usual cautionary notes. The study was small. It's not clear what it would mean for other conditions and more research is needed.
The work appeared in the medical journal PLoS One and was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Harvard.