The power of placebos is well-known. But placebos are now being tested as an actual treatment for a very real disorder—the crushing fatigue that often follows cancer treatment, even years later. And the participants will know they're taking placebos.
Harvard University has an entire department, known as the Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter, dedicated to studying the healing power of inert pills. Similar work also is ongoing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Researchers from the two universities will begin enrolling cancer survivors in a seven-week study this summer. Both groups, however, will be getting placebos. One group will get the pills during the first week of the study while the other acts as a control—then they'll switch.
Researchers also will try to determine whether there's a genetic predisposition for responding to a placebo. Previous studies have suggested there could be a link.
Placebos are so strong, they can even help people lose weight. A 2013 study from the same group found that taking a placebo pill, even knowingly, on top of a diet and exercise regimen produced concrete results for the placebo-taking group.
How does it work? Kevin Fontaine, chairman of the health behavior department at UAB's School of Public Health, has a theory.
“We believe there's some element of classical conditioning going on,” Fontaine told a UAB newsletter.
“Throughout your life, you take a pill and you see an effect. You take an aspirin, for instance, and it takes away your headache. There's an association there in your mind, and the idea is that the ritual of taking pills may actually produce a beneficial effect.”
Which could be one way to save money on prescription costs.