Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is a serious problem for nearly 14 million cancer survivors, but treatments to help alleviate it are scarce. However, according to a study published in Nature Scientific Reports, placebos—pills that contain no active medication—may reduce fatigue in survivors, according to a press release from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

Researchers at UAB and Harvard Medical School conducted a study of 74 survivors of different types of cancer who were suffering from moderate to severe fatigue. Participants were randomly assigned to either the open-label placebo (OLP) group or the treatment-as-usual cohort. Upon enrollment in the study, participants were made aware that they would be taking placebos.

For three weeks, individuals in the OLP group took two pills twice per day. After three weeks, those in the other group were given the option of taking the placebo pills.

Cancer survivors who took placebo pills experienced a clinically meaningful 29 percent improvement in fatigue severity. In addition, quality of life with regard to fatigue improved by 39 percent.

“The effects of the placebo pills on fatigue were so dramatic that we had a number of the study patients ask if they could be given more placebo pills,” said Teri Hoenemeyer, PhD, lead author and director of Education and Supportive Services at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “For ethical reasons, we were unable to do so.”

Surprisingly, participants experienced benefits even after pill discontinuation, indicating long-term benefits of OLPs.

Study authors concluded, “Although our results suggest that OLP may be a beneficial treatment for CRF, replications studies are needed, as well as studies exploring how OLP works, why and under what circumstances.”

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