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Placebos Helping IBS, Migraine Sufferers Find Relief

BOSTON (CBS) -- Is it possible to get real results from a fake pill?

"I felt horrible. I didn't have a life. I couldn't do anything," said Linda Buonanno of Methuen.

Desperate for relief from irritable bowel syndrome, Buonanno signed up for a medical study with a twist.

"He told me it would be a placebo and I was so disappointed," she said. "A sugar pill? Are you kidding?"

She knew it was a placebo through the entire study and it still worked.

"I never felt better in my life," Buonanno says.

Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine and also social medicine at Harvard Medical School, ran the placebo study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"The placebo effect is as real as hope is," says Professor Ted Kaptchuk.

He says placebos can work in a surprisingly powerful way.

"The brain releases neurotransmitters that actually use the same pathways that many drugs use, it's like an internal pharmacy," says the professor.

In another study, migraine sufferers knowingly took placebos and also saw relief.

"You don't need deception or concealment for many conditions to get a significant and meaningful placebo response," Kaptchuk said.

Psychologist Dr. Harris Stratyner said there may be something else at work.

"I believe that there's a little part (of) you saying 'Hmm...I wonder if this really is a placebo. Maybe he's just telling me that.'"

Either way, placebos do have their limits.

"Placebos won't cure cancer. They are not going to lower cholesterol," Kaptchuk says.

But for some conditions, Kaptchuk hopes placebos will one day change the way patients are treated.

"Instead of putting people on drugs immediately...try (placebos) out for a few weeks and see if it works," he said. "If not, then go on to the drugs."

Right now, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is recruiting for a much larger IBS/placebo study. For more information on how to enroll, visit the IBS Study website, email or call or text (617) 651-0767.

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