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About The Placebo Effect

Placebos helped ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) even when patients knew that was what they were taking, a new study reports.

Researchers randomly assigned 80 patients with IBS to receive placebo pills (openly labeled as such) or no treatment over a three-week period. Patients taking placebos had significantly higher mean scores on the IBS Global Improvement Scale at 11 and 21 days, and also reported significant improvements in symptom severity and relief. The results of the study, which was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, were published online Dec. 22 by PLoS ONE.

Anthony Lembo, M.D., a study coauthor, said in a press release that he didn’t expect the placebo to work. “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them,” he said.

Ted Kaptchuk, O.M.D., the study’s lead author, told the LA Times that a larger study needs to be done to confirm the findings, and said that he didn’t believe such effects would be possible “without a positive doctor-patient relationship.”

ACP Internist looked at placebos’ place in clinical practice in a 2009 article. (PLoS ONE, Public Library of Science, LA Times, ACP Internist)

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Unscientific Medicine: What’s The Harm?

Any promoter of science-based medicine often faces the question: “What’s the harm?” What is the harm if people try treatment modalities that are not based upon good science, that are anecdotal, or provide only a placebo benefit? There are generally two premises to this question. The first is that most “alternative” placebo interventions are directly harmless. The second is that direct harm is the only type worth considering. Both of these premises are wrong.

The pages of Science Based Medicine (SBM) are filled with accounts of direct harm from unscientific treatments: Argyria from colloidal silver, death from chelation therapy, infection or other complications from acupuncture, burns from ear candleing, stroke from chiropractic neck manipulation — the list goes on. You can read anecdotal accounts of such harm on the website,

Of course, as we often point out, harm and risk is only one end of the equation — one must also consider benefit. It is the risk-benefit ratio of an intervention that is important. But generally we are talking about interventions that lack any evidence for benefit, and therefore any risk of harm is arguably unacceptable. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Quackademic Medicine Infiltrates The New England Journal Of Medicine

One of the things that disturbs me the most about where medicine is going is the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. So prevalent is this unfortunate phenomenon that Doctor RW even coined a truly apt term for it: Quackademic medicine.

In essence, pseudoscientific and even prescientific ideas are rapidly being “integrated” with science-based medicine, or, as I tend to view it, quackery is being “integrated” with scientific medicine, to the gradual erosion of scientific standards in medicine. No quackery is too quacky, it seems. Even homeopathy and naturopathy can seemingly find their way into academic medical centers. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

The Improbable, Unsinkable Glucosamine

Glucosamine is widely used for osteoarthritis pain. It’s not as impossible as homeopathy, but its rationale is improbable. As I explained in a previous post:

Wallace Sampson, one of the other authors of this blog, has pointed out that the amount of glucosamine in the typical supplement dose is on the order of 1/1000th to 1/10,000th of the available glucosamine in the body, most of which is produced by the body itself. He says, “Glucosamine is not an essential nutrient like a vitamin or an essential amino acid, for which small amounts make a large difference. How much difference could that small additional amount make? If glucosamine or chondroitin worked, this would be a medical first and worthy of a Nobel. It probably cannot work.”

Nevertheless, glucosamine (alone or with chondroitin) is widely used, and there are some supporting studies. But they are trumped by a number of well-designed studies that show it works no better than placebo, as well as a study showing that patients who had allegedly responded to glucosamine couldn’t tell the difference when their pills were replaced with placebos. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Placebo Medicine: Is It A Sham?

In the Wall Street Journal last week was a particularly bad article by Melinda Beck about acupuncture. While there was token skepticism (by Edzard Ernst, of course, who is the media’s go-to expert for CAM), the article credulously reported the marketing hype of acupuncture proponents.

Toward the end of the article Beck admits that “some critics” claim that acupuncture provides nothing more than a placebo effect, but this was followed by the usual canard:

“I don’t see any disconnect between how acupuncture works and how a placebo works,” says radiologist Vitaly Napadow at the Martinos center. “The body knows how to heal itself. That’s what a placebo does, too.”

That is a bold claim, and very common among CAM proponents, especially acupuncturists. As the data increasingly shows that acupuncture (and other implausible treatments) provides no benefit beyond placebo, we hear the special pleading that placebos work also.

But is that true? It turns out there is a literature on the placebo effect itself, and the evidence suggests that placebos generally do not work. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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