Good Study, Bad Practice: Placebo for IBS and Functional Abdominal Pain

Have a great day (Mt Yonah, Cleveland GA)

S Nurko et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2022;176(4):349-356. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.5750. Adolescents With Functional Abdominal Pain or Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Design: Patients completed 1 week of observation prior to randomization to 1 of 2 counterbalanced groups: OLP for 3 weeks followed by a 3-week control period or control period for 3 weeks followed by OLP for 3 weeks. During the OLP period, participants took 1.5 mL of an inert liquid placebo twice a day.

Key findings:

  • The mean (SD) pain scores were significantly lower during open label placebo (OLP) treatment compared with the control period (39.9 [18.9] vs 45.0 [14.7]; difference, 5.2; 95% CI, 0.2-10.1; P = .03)
  • Patients took nearly twice as many hyoscyamine pills during the control period compared with during the OLP period (mean [SD] number, 3.8 [5.1] pills vs 2.0 [3.0] pills; difference, 1.8 pills; 95% CI, 0.5-3.1 pills)

My take: It is a mistake to consider placebo as a treatment for functional abdominal pain. In many children, pain fluctuates and may improve with reassurance, distraction, healthier diets, and physical activity. However, we also need more effective therapies including pain psychology, dietary approaches and medications. The idea that placebo helps is misleading and undermines the fact that patients with functional disorders need effective treatment.

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