Medications that treat asthma are no better than "dummy pills," or placebo treatments, at helping patients feel better, a new study says.
Patients reported feeling that their symptoms improved just as well after receiving placebo treatments, including fake acupuncture and inhaler treatments, as they did after receiving the asthma drug albuterol , the researchers said.
However, the placebo treatments did not affect a scientific measure of the patients' actual lung function. Only the drug was capable of that.
The findings suggest placebo treatments can have meaningful benefits for patients .
"It's clear that for the patient, the ritual of treatment can be very powerful," said study researcher Ted Kaptchuk, director of the program in placebo studies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "This study suggests that in addition to active therapies for fixing diseases, the idea of receiving care is a critical component of what patients value in health care," Kaptchuk said.
The study will be published tomorrow (July 14) the New England Journal of Medicine.
Drug vs. placebo
Kaptchuk and colleagues examined 39 patients, whose average age was 41, with chronic asthma. Patients were randomly assigned to receive treatment with albuterol administered by an inhaler, treatment with a placebo inhaler, treatment with acupuncture that was not intended to have any physical benefits and no treatment. Every participant eventually received all four treatments; they were given at least three days apart.
Regardless of whether patients received albuterol or the placebo treatments, they reported about a 50 percent improvement in their symptoms, the researchers said.
However, the albuterol treatment increased patients' FEV1, or the maximum amount of air they can expel in one second, by 20 percent, on average. The rest of the treatments only increased FEV1 by 7 percent.
"While I was initially surprised that there was no placebo effect in this experiment," Kaptchuk said, "once I saw patients' subjective descriptions of how they felt following both the active treatment and the placebo treatments, it was apparent that the placebos were as effective as the active drug in helping people feel better," he said.
Further, the findings suggest that simply asking patients whether they feel better may not be an adequate way to measure a drug's true effect.
Clinical trials of asthma treatments may need to include a no treatment option, in addition to a placebo treatment, in order to detect whether patients' perceptions of their symptoms are improved by placebos, the researchers said. Often, such trails do not include a "no treatment" group.
Pass it on: Placebo treatments are just as good as asthma medications in terms of helping asthma patients feel better.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.