Posts Tagged placebo

Can we finally just say that acupuncture is nothing more than an elaborate placebo?

I realize that Steve blogged about this study earlier in the week, but since I also commented on this particular study as my not-so-super-secret alter ego, I figured it rated a place on SBM as well. I emphasized different aspects of the study and tried to quantify exactly why, under even the most charitable interpretation of the study possible, the effects are not clinically significant. Besides, if the level of comments and e-mails is any indication, there is sufficient interest in this particular study to rate a second post.

Not suprisingly, this study is about about acupuncture. Well, it’s not exactly a study, it’s a meta-analysis that aggregates a whole lot of acupuncture studies in which this most popular of woos is administered to patients with chronic pain from a variety of causes. It’s also being promoted all over the place with painfully credulous headlines like:

Posted in: Acupuncture

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NCCAM on “integrative medicine”: What’s in a word?

I don’t know how I’ve missed this, given that it’s been in existence now for a month and a half, but I have. Regular readers (and even fairly recent readers, given that I write about this topic relatively frequently) know that I’m not a big fan of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). (Come to think of it, neither is anyone else writing for this blog.) Just search this blog for “NCCAM” if you don’t believe me. I’ve explained the reasons many times, but the CliffsNotes version is that NCCAM is an enormous waste of taxpayer money, dedicated as it is to the study of modalities that are at best highly implausible and at worst break well-established laws of physics (i.e., “energy healing”). I do concede that, since the latest NCCAM director (Dr. Josephine Briggs) took over, there has been a noticeable attempt to bring more scientific rigor to NCCAM, and to some extent Dr. Briggs has succeeded. At the very least she is a legitimate scientist with an impressive pre-NCCAM track record, and I do fear who will succeed her when she moves on or retires given that there is enormous pressure from the CAM community to appoint one of their own as director.

Unfortunately, as rigorous a scientist as Dr. Briggs was in her former life, since coming to NCCAM she has gradually been assimilated into the culture of the place. Indeed, although it is good that NCCAM has backed away from studying woo like homeopathy and distance healing, the co-optation of science-based modalities such as exercise, diet, and natural products pharmacology has continued apace. Worse, the recently released five year strategic plan for NCCAM admitted that the science funded by NCCAM in the past was crap and, in essence, promised to do some real science for a change. That’s why on occasion I’ve jokingly said that we should take off and nuke NCCAM from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. On the other hand, no doubt someone would think I seriously mean that we should nuke NCCAM. Of course, I’d never advocate that! NCCAM is located right smack dab in the middle of the NIH campus. The collateral damage would be unacceptable.

I keed. I keed. I’m not kidding, though, when I echo the questioning of why NCCAM still exists.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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Followup: Benedetti on Placebo Ethics

A few months ago I wrote about Fabrizio Benedetti’s research on the neurobiology of the placebo response, and a discussion about placebos and ethics ensued in the comments. Now Dr. Benedetti has written about that issue in a “Perspective” article in the journal World Psychiatry, “The placebo response: science versus ethics and the vulnerability of the patient.” 

We have learned that verbal suggestions can activate neurotransmitters and modulate pain perceptions, and positive expectations can activate endogenous opioid and cannabinoid systems. A complex mental activity has objective effects on body physiology. Words and drugs can activate the same mechanisms. Drugs are less effective without therapeutic rituals. We are delving deep into human foibles and vulnerable traits at the center of human interactions. What implications do these insights into mind-body interactions have for patient care?


Posted in: Medical Ethics

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Does thinking make it so? CAM placebo fantasy versus scientific reality

Last week, I discussed a rather execrable study. Actually, the study itself wasn’t so execrable, at least not in its design, which was a fairly straightforward three-arm randomized clinical trial. Rather it was the interpretation of the study’s results that was execrable. In brief, the authors tested an “energy healing” modality known as “energy chelation” versus a placebo (sham “energy chelation”) and found, as is so often the case in studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM) that both modalities did better than no treatment on the primary outcomes but that the “real” treatment (if one can call energy chelation “real treatment”) produced outcomes that were statistically indistinguishable from the “sham” treatment. Not surprisingly, the next move on the part of the researchers was to do a bunch of comparisons, and, as is so often the case (particularly when one fails to correct statistically for multiple comparisons), they found a couple of secondary endpoints with barely statistically significant differences and trumpeted them as meaning that their “energy chelation therapy” has “significant promise for reducing fatigue.” They then argued that the study was also ” designed to examine nonspecific and placebo elements that may drive responses.”

Which brings us to the “power” of placebo.

As I was contemplating what I wanted to discuss this week, I thought about the study that Drs. Coyne, Johansen, and I objected to, but then I also thought about Dr. Crislip’s post last week and post I did about a month ago in which I noticed how lately CAM apologists seem to be—shall we say?—retooling their message in the wake of negative trial after negative trial of their implausible treatments. Gone (mostly) are claims of powerful specific effects and efficacy from treatments such as various “energy healing” modalities, acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like themselves, to be replaced by claims that physicians should embrace CAM because it’s “harnessing the power of placebo” to produce “powerful mind-body healing.” It’s a powerful message that has sucked in people who normally would be considered skeptics, such as Michael Specter, who, as I described, apparently bought into the message sufficiently that when Ted Kaptchuk was making the media round right before the holidays he happily published a fairly credulous interview with him entitled, The Power of Nothing: Could Studying the Placebo Effect Change the Way We Think About Medicine? (My answer: Very likely no.) Even Ira Flatow of Science Friday fell hard for Kaptchuk’s message, declaring at the beginning of the interview that Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study is evidence that “placebos work even when patients are in on the secret.” (It’s not.)

That skeptics and scientists find the idea that the mind has the power to heal the body, often referred to as “self-healing” or “mind-body healing,” so seductive should probably not be surprising. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to cure themselves simply by willing it to be so? It’s a concept that, like so many concepts in CAM, goes far back into ancient times and stretches forward to today in ideas like The Secret, which goes quite a bit beyond the whole idea of “mind-body healing” or healing yourself because you wish it to be so, and declares that you can have virtually anything you want simply by thinking the right thoughts. In fact, to me it appears that the “powerful placebo” is being drafted in the service of supporting what are, at their core, mystical beliefs far more than science. I’d like to elaborate on that idea a bit more than I did last time I discussed this isssue, where I concluded by writing:

In the end, all too much of the rebranding of CAM as placebo and the selling of placebos as some sort of powerful “mind-body healing” strikes me as being much like The Secret, in which wishing makes it so.

Let’s take a look at just how far this goes.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Religion

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

A Loose End

In the last post I wondered if Ted Kaptchuk, when he wrote the article titled “Effect of interpretive bias on clinical research,” had understood this implication of Bayes’s Theorem: that interpretations of most scientific investigations are exercises in inverse probability, and thus cannot logically be done without consideration of knowledge external to the investigation in question. I argued that if Kaptchuk had

…understood the point when he wrote his treatise, he was dishonest in not explaining it and in not citing at least one pertinent article, such as Steven Goodman’s (which I’m willing to bet he had read). If he didn’t understand the point he should have withheld his paper.

In researching more of Kaptchuk’s opinions I’ve discovered that he had certainly read Goodman’s article, but that he either didn’t understand it or preferred to obscure its implications in deference to his ongoing project in belittling scientific knowledge. In a letter to the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, Kaptchuk opined that even if “more trials of distant healing with increased methodologic rigor” were positive, it still would not “be persuasive for the medical community”:

The situation resembles the predicament with homeopathy trials, another seemingly implausible intervention, where the evidence of multiple positive randomized, controlled trials will not convince the medical community of its validity. Additional positive trials of distant healing are only likely to further expose the fact that the underpinning of modern medicine is an unstable balance between British empiricism (in the tradition of Hume) and continental rationalism (in the tradition of Kant).

…It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation. [Kaptchuk cites the second of the two Goodman articles that I referred to above, discussed here]


Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Health Fraud, Legal, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.2: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (cont. again)

“Strong Medicine”: Ted Kaptchuk and the Powerful Placebo

At the beginning of the first edition of The Web that has no Weaver, published in 1983, author Ted Kaptchuk portended his eventual academic interest in the placebo:

A story is told in China about a peasant who had worked as a maintenance man in a newly established Western missionary hospital. When he retired to his remote home village, he took with him some hypodermic needles and lots of antibiotics. He put up a shingle, and whenever someone came to him with a fever, he injected the patient with the wonder drugs. A remarkable percentage of these people got well, despite the fact that this practitioner of Western medicine knew next to nothing about what he was doing. In the West today, much of what passes for Chinese medicine is not very different from the so-called Western medicine practiced by this Chinese peasant. Out of a complex medical system, only the bare essentials of acupuncture technique have reached the West. Patients often get well from such treatment because acupuncture, like Western antibiotics, is strong medicine.

Other than to wonder if Kaptchuk had watched too many cowboy ‘n’ Native American movies as a kid, when I first read that passage I barely blinked. Although the Chinese peasant may have occasionally treated someone infected with a bacterium susceptible to his antibiotic, most people will get well no matter what you do, because most illnesses are self-limited. Most people feel better even sooner if they think that someone with special expertise is taking care of them. If you want to call those phenomena the “placebo effect,” in the colloquial sense of the term, fine. That, I supposed, was what Kaptchuk meant by “strong medicine.”

Turns out I was mistaken. Let’s briefly follow Kaptchuk’s career path after 1983. In the 2000 edition of The Web, he wrote:


Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Benedetti on Placebos

There has been an ongoing debate about placebos on SBM, both in the articles and in the comments. What does it mean that a treatment has been shown to be “no better than placebo?”  If our goal is for patients to feel better and they feel better with placebos, why not prescribe them? Do placebos actually do anything useful? What can science tell us about why a patient might report diminished pain after taking an inert sugar pill? The subject is complex and prone to misconceptions. A recent podcast interview offers a breakthrough in understanding.

On her Brain Science Podcast Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, a physician and clinical neurophysiologist who is one of the world’s leading researchers on the neurobiology of placebos. A transcript of the interview [PDF] is available on her website for those who prefer reading to listening. The information Dr. Benedetti presents and the expanded remarks by Dr. Campbell after the interview go a long way towards explaining the placebo phenomenon and its consequences for clinical medicine. Dr. Campbell also includes a handy list of references. I’ll try to provide a summary of the main points, but I recommend reading or listening to the original.

A common misconception is that the response to placebos is a purely subjective psychological response involving only the cortical level of the brain; but evidence is accumulating that real, measurable, objective subcortical neurophysiologic phenomena are involved. One of the first hints was a 1978 study showing that the placebo response to pain could be blocked by naloxone, a narcotic antagonist drug, indicating that the placebo must have actually caused an increase in endogenous opioids. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.0: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD


The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.

In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Revisiting Daniel Moerman and “placebo effects”

About three weeks ago, ironically enough, right around the time of TAM 9, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) inadvertently provided us in the form of a new study on asthma and placebo effects not only material for our discussion panel on placebo effects but material for multiple posts, including one by me, one by Kimball Atwood, and one by Peter Lipson, the latter two of whom tried to point out that the sorts of uses of these results could result in patients dying. Meanwhile, Mark Crislip, in his ever-inimitable fashion, discussed the study as well, using it to liken complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as the “beer goggles of medicine,” a line I totally plan on stealing. The study itself, we all agreed, was actually pretty well done. What it showed is that in asthma a patient’s subjective assessment of how well he’s doing is a poor guide to how well his lungs are actually doing from an objective, functional standpoint. For the most part, the authors came to this conclusion as well, although their hedging and hawing over their results made almost palpable their disappointment that their chosen placebos utterly failed to produce anything resembling an objective response improving lung function as measured by changes (or lack thereof) in FEV1.

In actuality, where most of our criticism landed, and landed hard—deservedly, in my opinion—was on the accompanying editorial, written by Dr. Daniel Moerman, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. There was a time when I thought that anthropologists might have a lot to tell us about how we practice medicine, and maybe they actually do. Unfortunately, my opinion in this matter has been considerably soured by much of what I’ve read when anthropologists try to dabble in medicine. Recently, I became aware that Moerman appeared on the Clinical Conversations podcast around the time his editorial was published, and, even though the podcast is less than 18 minutes long, Moerman’s appearance in the podcast provides a rich vein of material to mine regarding what, exactly, placebo effects are or are not, not to mention evidence that Dr. Moerman appears to like to make like Humpty-Dumpty in this passage:

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Belief in Echinacea

Note: The study discussed here has also been covered by Mark Crislip. I wrote this before his article was published, so please forgive any repetition. I approached it from a different angle; and anyway, if something is worth saying once it’s probably worth saying twice.


Is Echinacea effective for preventing and treating the common cold or is it just a placebo? My interpretation of the evidence is that Echinacea does little or nothing for the common cold. Initial reports were favorable, but were followed by four highly credible negative trials in major medical journals. A Cochrane systematic review was typically wishy-washy  The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates it as only “possibly effective” commenting that

Clinical studies and meta-analyses show that taking some Echinacea preparations can modestly reduce cold symptom severity and duration, possibly by about 10% to 30%; however, this level of symptom reduction might not be clinically meaningful for some patients. Several other clinical studies found no benefit from Echinacea preparations for reducing cold symptoms in adults or children…

A review on the common cold in American Family Physician stated that Echinacea is not recommended as a treatment.

I have a friend who believes in Echinacea. She says for the last several years she has taken Echinacea at the first hint of a cold, and she hasn’t developed a single cold in all that time. I told her that if that was valid evidence that it worked, I had just as valid evidence that it didn’t. For the last several years I have been careful not to take Echinacea at the first hint of a cold, and I haven’t had a single cold in all that time either. So I could claim that not taking Echinacea is an effective cold preventive! I thought my “evidence” cancelled out hers; she said we would just have to agree to disagree.

A recent study looked at the effect of belief on response to Echinacea and dummy pills. “Placebo Effects and the Common Cold: A Randomized Controlled Trial” was published by Barrett et al. in the Annals of Family Medicine(more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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