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Objective To investigate whether placebo effects can experimentally be separated into the response to three components—assessment and observation, a therapeutic ritual (placebo treatment), and a supportive patient-practitioner relationship—and then progressively combined to produce incremental clinical improvement in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. To assess the relative magnitude of these components. Design A six week single blind three arm randomised controlled trial. Setting Academic medical centre. Participants 262 adults (76% women), mean (SD) age 39 (14), diagnosed by Rome II criteria for and with a score of ≥150 on the symptom severity scale. Interventions For three weeks either waiting list (observation), placebo acupuncture alone (“limited”), or placebo acupuncture with a patient-practitioner relationship augmented by warmth, attention, and confidence (“augmented”). At three weeks, half of the patients were randomly assigned to continue in their originally assigned group for an additional three weeks. Main outcome measures Global improvement scale (range 1-7), adequate relief of symptoms, symptom severity score, and quality of life. Results At three weeks, scores on the global improvement scale were 3.8 (SD 1.0) v 4.3 (SD 1.4) v 5.0 (SD 1.3) for waiting list versus “limited” versus “augmented,” respectively (P<0.001 for trend). The proportion of patients reporting adequate relief showed a similar pattern: 28% on waiting list, 44% in limited group, and 62% in augmented group (P<0.001 for trend). The same trend in response existed in symptom severity score (30 (63) v 42 (67) v 82 (89), P<0.001) and quality of life (3.6 (8.1) v 4.1 (9.4) v 9.3 (14.0), P<0.001). All pairwise comparisons between augmented and limited patient-practitioner relationship were significant: global improvement scale (P<0.001), adequate relief of symptoms (P<0.001), symptom severity score (P=0.007), quality of life (P=0.01).Results were similar at six week follow-up. Conclusion Factors contributing to the placebo effect can be progressively combined in a manner resembling a graded dose escalation of component parts. Non-specific effects can produce statistically and clinically significant outcomes and the patient-practitioner relationship is the most robust component. Trial registration Clinical Trials NCT00065403.
Patients in the placebo arms of randomized controlled trials (RCT) often experience positive changes from baseline. While multiple theories concerning such “placebo effects” exist, peculiarly, none has been informed by actual interviews of patients undergoing placebo treatment. Here, we report on a qualitative study (n = 27) embedded within a RCT (n = 262) in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Besides identical placebo acupuncture treatment in the RCT, the qualitative study patients also received an additional set of interviews at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the trial. Interviews of the 12 qualitative subjects who underwent and completed placebo treatment were transcribed. We found that patients (1) were persistently concerned with whether they were receiving placebo or genuine treatment; (2) almost never endorsed “expectation” of improvement but spoke of “hope” instead and frequently reported despair; (3) almost all reported improvement ranging from dramatic psychosocial changes to unambiguous, progressive symptom improvement to tentative impressions of benefit; and (4) often worried whether their improvement was due to normal fluctuations or placebo effects. The placebo treatment was a problematic perturbation that provided an opportunity to reconstruct the experiences of the fluctuations of their illness and how it disrupted their everyday life. Immersion in this RCT was a co-mingling of enactment, embodiment and interpretation involving ritual performance and evocative symbols, shifts in bodily sensations, symptoms, mood, daily life behaviors, and social interactions, all accompanied by self-scrutiny and re-appraisal. The placebo effect involved a spectrum of factors and any single theory of placebo—e.g. expectancy, hope, conditioning, anxiety reduction, report bias, symbolic work, narrative and embodiment—provides an inadequate model to explain its salubrious benefits.
Evidence that placebo acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain presents a puzzle: how do placebo needles appearing to patients to penetrate the body, but instead sitting on the skin’s surface in the manner of a tactile stimulus, evoke a healing response? Previous accounts of ritual touch healing in which patients often described enhanced touch sensations (including warmth, tingling or flowing sensations) suggest an embodied healing mechanism. In this qualitative study, we asked a subset of patients in a singleblind randomized trial in irritable bowel syndrome to describe their treatment experiences while undergoing placebo treament. Analysis focused on patients’ unprompted descriptions of any enhanced touch sensations (e.g., warmth, tingling) and any significance patients assigned to the sensations. We found in 5/6 cases, patients associated sensations including “warmth” and “tingling” with treatment efficacy. The conclusion offers a “neurophenomenological” account of the placebo effect by considering dynamic effects of attentional filtering on early sensory cortices, possibly underlying the phenomenology of placebo acupuncture.
The scientific discovery of novel training paradigms has yielded better understanding of basic mechanisms underlying cortical plasticity, learning and development. This study is a first step in evaluating Tai Chi (TC), the Chinese slow-motion meditative exercise, as a training paradigm that, while not engaging in direct tactile stimulus training, elicits enhanced tactile acuity in long-term practitioners. The rationale for this study comes from the fact that, unlike previously studied direct-touch tactile training paradigms, TC practitioners focus specific mental attention on the body’s extremities including the fingertips and hands as they perform their slow routine. To determine whether TC is associated with enhanced tactile acuity, experienced adult TC practitioners were recruited and compared to age–gender matched controls. A blinded assessor used a validated method (Van Boven et al. in Neurology 54(12): 2230–2236, 2000) to compare TC practitioners’ and controls’ ability to discriminate between two different orientations (parallel and horizontal) across different grating widths at the fingertip. Study results showed that TC practitioners’ tactile spatial acuity was superior to that of the matched controls (P < 0.04). There was a trend showing TC may have an enhanced effect on older practitioners (P < 0.066), suggesting that TC may slow age related decline in this measure. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate a long-term attentional practice’s effects on a perceptual measure. Longitudinal studies are needed to examine whether TC initiates or is merely correlated with perceptual changes and whether it elicits long-term plasticity in primary sensory cortical maps. Further studies should also assess whether related somatosensory attentional practices (such as Yoga, mindfulness meditation and Qigong) achieve similar effects.
OBJECTIVES: This study aimed to compare the effects of true and sham acupuncture in relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). METHODS: A total of 230 adult IBS patients (75% females, average age: 38.4 years) were randomly assigned to 3 weeks of true or sham acupuncture (6 treatments) after a 3-week "run-in" with sham acupuncture in an "augmented" or "limited" patient–practitioner interaction. A third arm of the study included a waitlist control group. The primary outcome was the IBS Global Improvement Scale (IBS-GIS) (range: 1–7); secondary outcomes included the IBS Symptom Severity Scale (IBS-SSS), the IBS Adequate Relief (IBS-AR), and the IBS Quality of Life (IBS-QOL). RESULTS: Although there was no statistically significant difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture on the IBS-GIS (41 vs. 32%, P=0.25), both groups improved significantly compared with the waitlist control group (37 vs. 4%, P=0.001). Similarly, small differences that were not statistically significant favored acupuncture over the other three outcomes: IBS-AR (59 vs. 57%, P=0.83), IBS-SSS (31 vs. 21%, P=0.18), and IBS-QOL (17 vs. 13%, P=0.56). Eliminating responders during the run-in period did not substantively change the results. Side effects were generally mild and only slightly greater in the acupuncture group. CONCLUSIONS: This study did not find evidence to support the superiority of acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture in the treatment of IBS.