What Is the Placebo Effect - Miracle, Magic or Just Medicine?
The Subversive Placebo Effect
Who does the placebo effect worry the most? Doctors or the pharmaceutical industry?
Both have cause to worry. The placebo effect shows that doctors may sometimes have no more power over illness than tribal medicine men. Big Pharma is so concerned, they game the drug trial system by deliberately weeding out subjects they believe are likely to be influenced by placebos.
Lost in the discussion are the larger questions and mystifying implications of the placebo effect.
One goal of this article will be to collect your opinions and stories. You're welcome to read, but you're invited to participate.
In my view...
Placebos are substances, like sugar pills, and treatments that cannot on their own cure an illness or repair an injury. In trials, they’re used as a measuring device. Are patients receiving treatment any more likely to benefit from it as those receiving an intentionally ineffective substitute?
The placebo effect is so pervasive that real medicine administered by professionals must beat it in order to be approved.
So, you’d think we’d invest the same money and attention to placebos and why they work for so many people as we invest in developing new drugs and other treatments.
But we don’t. You can’t get rich on placebos.
Instead, efforts are made to rule them out, to overcome trust in the placebo effect and the magic of self-healing.
The Medical Dark Side
Ivan Illich was a profound skeptic about the ultimate value of modern medicine and its claims.
Rather, Illich believed, the medical establishment wants to make you dependent on their monopoly.
Where are we coming from?
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The Big Placebo Question They Never Ask
You can pretty much bank on your doctor’s not discussing the potential benefits of the placebo effect or what it implies about our ability to heal ourselves. Some advanced practitioners will, but good luck finding one.
The larger question, though, the one no one asks as far as I’ve seen, is this: what’s up with the people who don’t respond to either placebos or treatment? Can we know the truth of what works for so many without understanding why it fails for others?
If the placebo effect or strategies for self-healing give you hope or more natural, individual paths to health, what must be avoided or pushed out of the way for success?
Taking a Refreshed Look at Modern Medicine
A disillusioned physician, Lissa Rankin took matters into her own hands, determined to heal herself from a tidal wave of personal crises.
Her research, especially on placebos, is more detailed than you will find elsewhere. Her conclusions are a ray of sunshine.
Why Do Placebos Work?
The most commonly accepted theory on why placebos work is that, as the cliche goes, it’s all in your head. Your belief that the medicine or treatment will work, frequently associated with heath care professional offering it, is the critical issue.
Others believe that your own conviction that you will be healed is the catalyst, and some trust that God, via prayer or faith, intervenes to melt away tumors and other factors in illness.
Isn’t it just as likely that a natural process, our own body’s efforts to gain balance and well-being, is enough to cure us most or almost all of the time?
But when you think about our bodies, the 50 trillion or more cells, the thousands of simultaneous systems, the endless interactions with the environment, you soon realize that no simple answer is possible.
Multiple elements must be involved, just as they are with anything else.
Let’s look at the placebo effect and effective treatment backward. Does the perspective change?
Take a situation we’re all familiar with. Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, doesn’t it? We all know that. Or does it?
A mere ten percent of smokers get lung cancer. Other diseases? Statistics show that only one in three smokers will die from a smoking related disease, not even a majority.
How powerful would a treatment, placebo or otherwise, have to be to considered effective? If our bodies are so resilient and resourceful they prevent cigarette smoking from setting off the spread of lung cancer cells, how powerful must a treatment be more effective?
The truth is, we don’t know why cigarette smoke is able to spur cancerous cell growth in ten percent of smokers, but not in the other ninety percent. We do know that, once cancer settles into a lung, most people with it will die.
We still don’t know why.
I’ve used cigarette smoking and lung cancer as an easy example because we’ve all heard about it and the statistics are well known. But the mysteries about in all kinds of illnesses and cures.
We may know what works, but we seldom really know why. The placebo effect clouds any results.
And there’s something else.
Spontaneous Healing, Spontaneous Remissions, Health Wild Cards
If anything should rattle our faith in the certainties of modern medicine, the many well-known instances where little but magic explains recovery from a confirmed illness.
In Lissa Rankin’s excellent Mind Over Medicine, she tells us that her years of experience as a physician showed her that virtually all of her colleagues had seen what were best described as miracle cures in their practices. They were so inexplicable, however, that the stories seldom leaked outside the doctors’ lounge.
The connection between the placebo effect and spontaneous healing is that neither yields an explanation that can be confirmed. It’s as if healing just happens.
There are numerous documented cases of individuals told that their condition was incurable, that they had only a few months to live, only to find their illnesses, typically cancers, wiped out without treatment.
Explain it by God’s intervention, faith in the doctor the prescribed cure, intentions and affirmations — whatever explanation you have, and you will find that another one, including traditional medicine, has been just as successful.
One spring, I was lucky to vacation in the Swiss Alps with my wife, a digital artist and photographer, and four biologists. An amateur, I felt like I was in a candy store of information.
One afternoon, while Valeri and I relaxed in the cool sun, I explained my theory that there were many more spontaneous remissions from cancer than those that get recognized.
To my surprise, she agreed immediately. While my idea was that we missed healings because the original illness hadn’t been recorded by a doctor, she knew something I hadn’t guessed at.
In her hospital, they often saw the evidence because, even though a biopsy showed a cancer that had metastasized, the source was nowhere to be found.
So, something is going on. We heal ourselves, but we also fail to heal ourselves. We observe the placebo effect healing in a way that defies logic, and we find that spontaneous healing occurs without any medical intervention.
What do you think?
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Harnessing the Placebo Effect
The problem with many, if not all, of the reasons for why we heal is that none explain why we don’t, given the same conditions.
I feel the same way about divine intervention as I do when I hear about it in explaining why some survive disasters and some don’t. “God saved me!” Really? What God picks and choses between victims and for what reason? Does one pray harder than another?
Divine intervention plays well with survivors. With true believers who don’t make it, God needs another another explanation. And I’ll bet plenty of sinners, plenty of atheists survive along with the righteous.
Medicine, surgery, drugs? We’ve all been told they work. But without knowing why they also don’t work, we can’t honestly, in any scientific way, say we know anything about them.
Take the placebo effect and its consistency across the centuries, the way spontaneous healing has take place under the supervision of witch doctors, spell conjurers and Harvard trained physicians, and you see that our knowledge of healing, why it happens and why it doesn’t, is far from explained.
But there are delicious hints.
For decades scientifically and far longer empirically, we’ve known that people who feel their health is critical in a given situation are far less likely to fall ill than others. Business executives, for example, don’t get ill until finishing a major project.
Maybe we all have the personal magic to stay well when we want to.
A decade ago, a major, long term study produced two intriguing results. First, the most reliable predictor of an individual’s health, five years into the future, is individual’s feeling about what it will be.
The second, which made me laugh, was a finding that the number of doctors in an area had an adverse effect on health. In other words, the more doctors, the more illness. No, I don’t think doctors cause illness but they may be co-creators in an environment where illness is a constant within the status quo.
Isn't it more than a little strange that we know so little about something that effects us profoundly and might be the difference between life and death for us at least once in our lifetimes?
As a society, we're more likely to pass off the placebo effect as some sort of magic, a lucky accident that can't be predicted.
Recent history has shown that neither is true. What's called for is more serious research into all the mysteries surrounding the placebo effect and spontaneous healing. Because of the power of the medical establishment and Big Pharma, both of which are invested in resisting research into alternatives, it will be necessary to find unconventional means for gathering and studying the evidence.
Why not start here and now?
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© 2014 David Stone
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