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Little is known about placebo effects with scientific precision. Poor methodology has confounded our understanding of the magnitude and even the existence of the placebo effect. Investigating placebo effects presents special research challenges including: the design of appropriate controls for studying placebo effects including separating such effects from natural history and regression to the mean, the need for large sample sizes to capture expected small effects, and the need to understand such potential effects from a patient's perspective. This article summarizes the methodology of an ongoing NIH-funded randomized controlled trial aimed at investigating whether the placebo effect in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) exists and whether the magnitude of such an effect can be manipulated to vary in a manner analogous to “dose dependence.” The trial also uses an innovative combination of quantitative and qualitative methods.
Study Objective To assess feasibility, and collect preliminary data for a subsequent randomized, sham-controlled trial to evaluate Japanese-style acupuncture for reducing chronic pelvic pain and improving health-related quality of life (HRQOL) in adolescents with endometriosis. Design Randomized, sham-controlled trial. Settings Tertiary-referral hospital. Participants Eighteen young women (13–22y) with laparoscopically-diagnosed endometriosis-related chronic pelvic pain. Interventions A Japanese style of acupuncture and a sham acupuncture control. Sixteen treatments were administered over 8 weeks. Main Outcome Measures Protocol feasibility, recruitment numbers, pain not associated with menses or intercourse, and multiple HRQOL instruments including Endometriosis Health Profile, Pediatric Quality of Life, Perceived Stress, and Activity Limitation. Results Fourteen participants (out of 18 randomized) completed the study per protocol. Participants in the active acupuncture group (n = 9) experienced an average 4.8 (SD = 2.4) point reduction on a 11 point scale (62%) in pain after 4 weeks, which differed significantly from the control group's (n = 5) average reduction of 1.4 (SD = 2.1) points (P = 0.004). Reduction in pain in the active group persisted through a 6-month assessment; however, after 4 weeks, differences between the active and control group decreased and were not statistically significant. All HRQOL measures indicated greater improvements in the active acupuncture group compared to the control; however, the majority of these trends were not statistically significant. No serious adverse events were reported. Conclusion Preliminary estimates indicate that Japanese-style acupuncture may be an effective, safe, and well-tolerated adjunct therapy for endometriosis-related pelvic pain in adolescents. A more definitive trial evaluating Japanese-style acupuncture in this population is both feasible and warranted.