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23 May 2011

New study shows placebo markedly reduces relapse rate in controlled trials

A new study published in the major international journal Multiple Sclerosis has identified in a systematic review of randomised controlled trials that people in the placebo arms involved in these studies had significantly reduced relapse rates

While it has been assumed, and observed in many clinical trials, that people with MS in the placebo arm seem to derive some benefit, this major systematic review published online early in the major international journal Multiple Sclerosis, for the first time has clearly quantified the size of this benefit. In analysing the placebo groups of 26 major randomised placebo controlled clinical trials published in the literature, the researchers from the UK and Germany found that on average, those in the placebo group had an annual relapse rate reduction of 6.2% (p<0.0001).

The very low p value indicates that this was not a chance result. So in a study that took 10 years to complete, this would equate to around a 50% reduction in relapse rate in those who received no active treatment. It is important that this be documented. We often hear a lot of negative things about placebo effects; but clearly in MS like most other diseases, the benefits of this effect are very real, and need to be accounted for when we assess how effective the actual therapies are that are being trialed.

One could translate this into saying that hope and belief in yourself and what you are doing about MS are likely to result in a significant reduction in relapse rate, quite apart from the actual benefit of the therapies (whether they be diet, exercise, omega 3s, vitamin D, meditation, conventional medications, or other interventions).

In fact, there is every chance that genuine hope and belief are likely to produce a greater benefit than that described in this paper, as these participants were not sure whether they were getting treated or not, thereby diluting the power of the placebo effect. Maybe we should stop calling it the placebo effect, which has something of a bad name, and start calling it faith in yourself and your future. 

Click here to read the full study