Placebo Power Learning to Harness It
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Placebo Power Learning to Harness It

Synopses of a Placebo

Physicians have long observed that even very sick patients sometimes get better after taking a sugar pill, or placebo.  For years, doctors viewed this placebo effect as an irrational element in an otherwise logical and systematic world of clinical medicine and medical research, a nuisance that needed to be explained away. 

Now:  Evidence is mounting that mental activity has a powerful effect on the body.  Doctors are seeking ways to exploit the placebo effect for their patients' benefit. 

What is a placebo?  Where treating patients is concerned, it's a pill that contains only inactive ingredients.  Prior to the 1960s, it was routine for doctors to give sugar pills to patients who complained of ailments that defied diagnosis.  Patients were told, "Take this.  It should help."  Anyone who got better after taking a placebo was assumed to be complaining of an ailment that didn't really exist.  Another important use of the placebo is in clinical trials of new drugs.  Here the placebo gives researchers a way to "control" for non medical factors that could affect the outcome of treatment, a patient's greater attention to health care during a study, for example, or simply the passage of time. 

Why do placebos work?  One theory is that placebos help boost the body's production of the natural painkilling compounds called endorphins.  Another is that placebos simply distract the mind, keeping patients from noticing pain.  A placebo might foster the body's innate self-healing power simply by bringing to mind the emotional comfort associated with childhood memories of going to the doctor.  It's also possible that placebos do nothing... that the patient would have gotten better anyway, regardless of treatment.  Given a few weeks or months, for example, up to half of all peptic ulcers heal by themselves, no matter what treatment is given.  

Do doctors still give out sugar pills?  No. Today it's considered unethical to give a patient a drug without telling him/her exactly what it is.  However, placebo-like treatments are still being given to patients.  Vitamin B-12 injections, for instance, are supposed to help fight fatigue and weakness.  The doctor would offer the injection to some patients.  It would be unethical for him/her to say " This treatment will cure you. "  What he/she should say is, " I suggest you get this shot.  I can't promise it will help, and I can't tell you how it works.  But other patients say the shot made them feel better. " 

How can doctors exploit the power of placebos without deceiving patients?  Doctors who speak optimistically to patients help them feel  better . . .  and this optimism may be associated with physical improvement as well.  Sadly, many doctors have forgotten the healing power of comforting words.  Doctors have also forgotten how to listen.  At one time, listening was central to medical practice.  But to many doctors, listening to patients now seems old-fashioned.  They tend to rush to offer pills and procedures that are often unnecessary. 

Does the doctor's style tie in with the placebo effect?  Absolutely.  A good doctor-patient relationship is integral to the placebo effect and to healing.  It fosters catharsis . . . the emotional release a patient feels after telling a doctor his/her troubles.  Interview doctors until you find one who listens well . . . and who has time to talk to you.

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Comments (6)

Tom, I gotta say...This was a great factoid in every way! I was just about to mention the placebo effect in a factoid I'm writing about a sea-sickness medicine; Bonine. I'll be sure to link in this article you've done here, with such great insight and skill! Let me start the discussion rolling by mentioning this: Prayer for healing: What do you think?

very interesting connection between positive thinking and the placebo effect

I'm a believer in mind-body connection, and I think placebo power is great evidence for such. Think of the cost-effectiveness of positive thinking, moral support and personal affirmations - not to mention the lack of side-effects and toxicity of some medicines. While we require some medicines to function (I do), I know I also have helped my self with the power of positive thinking. Your article is another affirmation. Thanks!

Useful article. Not much is being done to exploit the healing power of placebos. -- Shastri

Really interesting article. I have heard of placebos and I think for some people who think they are ill when they are just suffering from loneliness or stress they are/were a good idea. B12 is a very good vitamin to take no matter what, it's very good for general well being especially in women as are all the B vits. Very great write but I will not get onto the subject of doctors!!! LOL

I have heard about doctor using it which I think it is fine provided it doesn't cause harm to the one using it. Thanks for sharing. Voted up.