Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why Placebos Work

image by blary54,

It Is Faith, That's Why

Online medical blogs and news journals are agog with the latest piece of news about a survey conducted by the NIH to measure physician behavior and attitude concerning the use of placebo treatments.

image by srbichara,

Conducted amongst practicing internists and rheumatologists across the USA, the survey sought to find out whether doctors would baulk at prescribing placebos in place of actual medicines. Of the 679 physicians who responded, more than half said they regularly prescribed placebo treatments. The medicines which would be passed off as genuine treatment could be as bland as analgesics, as plain-vanilla as vitamins, or as insipid as pure sugar, while the fees would be collected without blinking the eye. Most of them (62%) acknowledged having no qualms about doing so. No moral, ethical dilemma for me here, no.

image by yenhoon,

This survey reinforces an earlier survey conducted in Jerusalem in 2004, where doctors from hospitals and family clinics participated. The outcome then too was roughly more or less the same: that doctors believe "benefits derive from positive patient expectations, and not from the physiological mechanism of the treatment itself." Ergo, the next time you go visit your doctor and buy the medicines they have prescribed, is quite possible that what you paid for and are swallowing with a gulp of water might be sugar that was already there in the jar in the kitchen.

image by jadegordon,

Reactions from colleagues in the medical fraternity have ranged from downright disbelief ("the survey respondents must be practitioners of alternative medicine") to moral outrage ("it's a disturbing finding"). Both reactions are not justified, as is the largely incomplete survey: in the fitness of things, it would help to also find out the impact of placebo treatment on the patients - did they at all get well at the end of it? If their condition improved and they became well, then why not, what's wrong with the placebo treatment? Isn't that what the Hippocratic oath tells us we should do - make them well? Then why the fuss?
image by barky,

We all know it by experience. If somebody makes up their mind to get well and overcome any amount of adversity, then focusing on just that one single thought is enough to see them through. I have seen it with my own eyes, these otherwise very ordinary people coming out of the most debilitating disease. And I am sure you must have heard about them from your social network too, if not experienced it firsthand. We always tend to file such incidents under the heading of "miracle", but come to think of it, there is nothing miraculous or incredible about these incidents: it is the power of thought and the feeling of faith that is behind them all.

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, taken from St. Michael's Gate, wiki_*

* Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, Lourdes, France, wiki. Besides other religious material, this complex also houses a few taps that dispense "Lourdes water". Ask any scientist, and they will say it is plain water. But ask the person who has traveled for thousands of kilometers to drink the water flowing from these taps. They will say it has healing power. And very interestingly, the deeper and stronger the faith, the greater are the chances that they will return healed! So why do we pooh-pooh or undervalue the placebo effect?

And when somebody makes up their mind to be not well, then whatever be the quality of treatment given to them, you know as well as I do that they will not get well. We say that they have "lost the will" to live, and sure enough, the life is lost. It is the power of the thought in play: "thought" doesn't have a "mind" of its own. It does not judge what is "good" or "bad" - if you hold a particular thought in your mind and focus on it, its practical manifestation will occur in your life.

Nirguna Padukas at Ganagapur, Maharashtra, India_*

* Nirguna Padukas at Ganagapur, Maharashtra, India, courtesy Thousands of devotees throng this temple every day, many of them return home with jarfuls of sacred ash they dispense here. The ashes are supposed to heal the most incurable diseases. The most rigorous of scientific analysis, the strongest rationalization surrenders before the placebo effect - the power of the thought.

This is why placebos work. It is the unshakeable faith in the doctor one is visiting when not well, and it is the blind faith in the elaborate medical system which does the trick. And doctors know this.

Just one word here. Go easy on this placebo treatment thing, folks. Don't use it as an excuse to spare yourself the intellectual effort required to search for the latest treatment available in the medical knowledgebase and which you have access to.

For more of these insights on the subject of the power of thought, visit:

Yarrow flower, wiki

1 comment:

  1. My physician uses placebo to great effect, without even resorting to sugar pills. I come in when I'm sick, and she points her little flashlight down my throat and then tells me to stop conning her. "You're perfectly healthy," she says, and suddenly there are no traces of head-cold or malaria or multiple-personality-disorder or whatever I had come to complain about.

    I also use the placebo effect every day when trying new things. I have supreme, no, irrational, nay! unhealthy confidence in my beginner's luck, and it almost never fails me.

    You should mention how to make the placebo effect work for everyone - for instance, "making affirmations" is a sibling method. You tell yourself something repeatedly till either you or your body believes it. Very much in practice in the spiritual world.

    Later dude!