The Placebo Effect: BBC's 'Can My Brain Cure My Body?' Sees Fake Pills Relieve Chronic Back Pain

Presenter Michael Moseley was left "amazed" by the results of this major study.

Jim Pearce is a 71-year-old who lives with chronic back pain that’s worsened over the years to the point where he cannot walk. In fact, some days he can barely move from his wheelchair.

When he started taking a daily dose of blue and white pills filled with ground-up rice powder, he wasn’t aware that he was taking a placebo drug for back pain, he thought it was a new type of painkiller.

Miraculously, within weeks he was able to do things he’d not been able to do in ages, including getting out of his chair and walking a few steps.

“I just woke up one morning and I thought: hang about, I haven’t got a twinge in my back,” he told Michael Moseley in BBC 2 Horizon’s ‘The Placebo Experiment: Can My Brain Cure My Body’.

“It’s been going from strength to strength on a daily basis.”

Michael Moseley holding a bottle of the placebo pills.
Michael Moseley holding a bottle of the placebo pills.

Pearce is one of 117 people from Blackpool who struggle with chronic back pain and were enrolled on a study where every single person was given a placebo drug. Some of the participants had previously been hospitalised because of the debilitating pain, others had been taking morphine or ketamine to relieve symptoms.

Back pain is one of the leading causes of disability among both men and women in the UK, with the people of Blackpool being particularly affected - one in five people suffers.

People involved in the study were told they’d either receive a new type of plant-based painkiller or a placebo drug. But actually, they were all given the placebo - a blue and white pill filled with rice powder.

The medication bottles looked the part - with warnings and information on side effects - and even the GP consultation to prescribe the tablets was planned carefully, with half of the group having a longer length appointment (up to 30 minutes) and the other half having just under 10 minutes (the average length of a GP appointment).

“This additional time, expressing more empathy, can allow the patient’s anxiety to be reduced and a number of studies show that reduced anxiety can reduce pain,” said Dr Jeremy Howick, from Oxford University, who helped design the study.

People were told to take two tablets every day and record video diaries of how they got on. At the beginning and end of the experiment they had to fill in disability surveys rating their back pain from a scale of one to five.

The end result was staggering: 45 per cent of participants showed a medically-significant improvement. “Between them they’ve tried every painkiller from tramadol to morphine, but our ground-up rice pills have still made a real difference. I am amazed by the result,” said Moseley.

Participants, some of whom had previously been unable to get out of their house with their kids or were unable to do their job properly, were all of a sudden reporting a change in their health. Some found themselves waking up without pain in the morning while others said they had more energy.

At the start of the study, during his initial consultation, Pearce said: “I’m not looking for miracles. It would be nice even if the pain went away a little bit to give me more freedom, more things to do.”

He used to have a boat but had to give it up when he was diagnosed with cancer and his back pain took a turn for the worse. But part-way through the study he was able to get out of his wheelchair and climb aboard a boat once more - a simple act which reduced him to tears. “I’m over the moon,” he said.

When Moseley asked if he’d choose the blue pills over the morphine he’d previously been taking, he said he would. “I’d be lost for words if I was [on the placebo],” he added. “I haven’t felt like this for a long, long time.”

While placebo pills can’t fix broken bones or treat cancer, the study shows it could certainly prove useful in helping relieve some types of pain. Mind over matter has never rung truer.

After the participants were told they’d all been taking a placebo drug, a group of them made the active decision to stay on it and close to 70 per cent of those who carried on taking the pills felt better.

Pearce felt so well he even went to Gibraltar. “I’ve got a different opinion, a different way of life now - and I’m beginning to like it,” he said.

“We’re going to go away to Ibiza, I’ve never been there before. I mean [the] sky’s the limit for me now. I’m going to try everything and anything I can.”