• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Placebo found partially effective in asthma treatment

July 13, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Millions of people with asthma worldwide rely on rescue inhalers. But would you be surprised to learn the mind also plays a role in how well they work? It may be a new approach to treating asthma.

The onset of an asthma attack can be a very scary situation. Patients rely on their rescue medications to get their symptoms under control. Now a new report reveals one of these key drugs can do more than give you peace of mind.

Alex Agueta is a standout champion on the wrestling mat, but when it comes to beating asthma, he needs his rescue inhaler.

"Sometimes it'll even save my life if sometimes I feel like I can't breathe, my mom will have to give it to me quick and it'll help," said Alex.

"All persons with asthma should have an albuterol inhaler and we usually do recommend that they carry it with them because you never know when you'll need it," said Dr. Sonal Patel, an allergist at White Memorial Medical Center in East Los Angeles.

Patel says it's the standard of care for millions of asthma sufferers. A new study confirms albuterol's ability to save lives, but also reveals that just thinking you're getting the drug helps too.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that while albuterol increased lung capacity by 20 percent, even those who got a placebo treatment saw a 7-percent increase.

But if you asked the patients how well they were doing, it was far different than what was going on in their lungs. Those who were on any kind of treatment, placebo or not, reported a 50-percent improvement in their symptoms. Those who didn't get any treatment reported a 20-percent improvement.

"It does show that albuterol is effective because it was the only one that made an actual difference in lung function. But I think it also showed that the use of any treatment, whether it was placebo or albuterol, can help patients to some extent," said Patel.

Patel says when it comes to asthma attacks it can be mind over matter.

"You do need to stay calm, that is very important," said Patel.

And asthma doesn't have to slow you down.

"You can be an athlete like Alex," said Patel. "There are athletes that win gold medals in the Olympics that have asthma, so I think anything is possible."

Alex placed sixth in the state. He avoids his asthma triggers and carries his rescue inhaler wherever he goes. Caution and common sense help him excel.

Authors say the study illustrates the placebo effect can be as active as actual medication in a patient's perception. But it also shows from a clinical perspective how patients' self-reports can be unreliable.

Load Comments