The purpose was to find out if doctors can manipulate the placebo effect. He recruited volunteers suffering from chronic arm pain, which they rated at least a 3 on a bmj journals scale.
The other subjects were prescribed blue cornstarch pills that resembled amitriptyline, an antidepressant often prescribed for repetitive strain injury. Dry mouth and fatigue were the most common side effects, and 3 subjects withdrew from the study after reducing the dosage failed to control their symptoms.
The reported side effects exactly matched those described by the doctors at the beginning of the study.
After 10 weeks, subjects taking sham pills said their pain decreased an average of 1. After 8 weeks, those receiving fake acupuncture reported a drop of 2.
In other words, not receiving acupuncture reduces pain more than not taking drugs. Kaptchuk says that the rituals of medicine explain the difference: Performing acupuncture is more elaborate than prescribing medicine. Other rituals that may make patients feel better include "white coats, and stethoscopes that you don't necessarily use, pictures on the wall, the way you reassure a patient, and the secretaries that sign you in.
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He ended up running a pain unit at a hospital in Boston, where he prescribed acupuncture, meditation, and massage. It worked, but colleagues claimed the effect was purely psychological. And that was probably more interesting, he decided, so bmj journals started researching placebos at Harvard Medical School. For this study he assembled an eclectic team, including a cardiologist, three statisticians, a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and a philosopher.
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Kaptchuk's title is assistant professor of medicine.