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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.
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BACKGROUND: Despite the apparent high placebo response rate in randomized placebo-controlled trials (RCT) of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), little is known about the variability and predictors of this response. OBJECTIVES: To describe the magnitude of response in placebo arms of IBS clinical trials and to identify which factors predict the variability of the placebo response. METHODS: We performed a meta-analysis of published, English language, RCT with 20 or more IBS patients who were treated for at least 2 weeks. This analysis is limited to studies that assessed global response (improvement in overall symptoms). The variables considered as potential placebo modifiers were study design, study duration, use of a run-in phase, Jadad score, entry criteria, number of office visits, number of office visits/study duration, use of diagnostic testing, gender, age and type of medication studied. FINDINGS: Forty-five placebo-controlled RCTs met the inclusion criteria. The placebo response ranged from 16.0 to 71.4% with a population-weighted average of 40.2%, 95% CI (35.9-44.4). Significant associations with lower placebo response rates were fulfillment of the Rome criteria for study entry (P=0.049) and an increased number of office visits (P=0.026). CONCLUSIONS: Placebo effects in IBS clinical trials measuring a global outcome are highly variable. Entry criteria and number of office visits are significant predictors of the placebo response. More stringent entry criteria and an increased number of office visits appear to independently decrease the placebo response.
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Abstract  Background:  Despite the apparent high placebo response rate in randomized placebo-controlled trials (RCT) of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), little is known about the variability and predictors of this response. Objectives:  To describe the magnitude of response in placebo arms of IBS clinical trials and to identify which factors predict the variability of the placebo response. Methods:  We performed a meta-analysis of published, English language, RCT with 20 or more IBS patients who were treated for at least 2 weeks. This analysis is limited to studies that assessed global response (improvement in overall symptoms). The variables considered as potential placebo modifiers were study design, study duration, use of a run-in phase, Jadad score, entry criteria, number of office visits, number of office visits/study duration, use of diagnostic testing, gender, age and type of medication studied. Findings:  Forty-five placebo-controlled RCTs met the inclusion criteria. The placebo response ranged from 16.0 to 71.4% with a population-weighted average of 40.2%, 95% CI (35.9–44.4). Significant associations with lower placebo response rates were fulfilment of the Rome criteria for study entry (P = 0.049) and an increased number of office visits (P = 0.026). Conclusions:  Placebo effects in IBS clinical trials measuring a global outcome are highly variable. Entry criteria and number of office visits are significant predictors of the placebo response. More stringent entry criteria and an increased number of office visits appear to independently decrease the placebo response.

Patient–physician interactions significantly contribute to placebo effects and clinical outcomes. While the neural correlates of placebo responses have been studied in patients, the neurobiology of the clinician during treatment is unknown. This study investigated physicians’ brain activations during patient–physician interaction while the patient was experiencing pain, including a ‘treatment‘, ‘no-treatment’ and ‘control’ condition. Here, we demonstrate that physicians activated brain regions previously implicated in expectancy for pain–relief and increased attention during treatment of patients, including the right ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. The physician’s ability to take the patients’ perspective correlated with increased brain activations in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, a region that has been associated with processing of reward and subjective value. We suggest that physician treatment involves neural representations of treatment expectation, reward processing and empathy, paired with increased activation in attention-related structures. Our findings further the understanding of the neural representations associated with reciprocal interactions between clinicians and patients; a hallmark for successful treatment outcomes.
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