smason edit.jpg (23187 bytes)Look At It This Way
by Dr. Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things
In new ways

The Up Side of Voodo

Sugar Pills - More Effective than You Might Think?

In a previous column, I talked about Homeopathic remedies and explained how they're formulated. Very few of the people who buy such products know why or how they're made so, by way of a public service, I provided that information. Here's a brief summary:

Some 200 years ago, Samuel Hannaman found that quinine caused the same intermittent fever in healthy people that it cured in patients suffering from malaria. Thus the theory of Like Cures Like was born. Essentially it says that the same symptom a substance creates in a well person it will treat in a sick one...the word Homeopathy, in fact, means Same Pathogen. But what to do with something like arsenic? Since it causes vomiting, might it be of benefit to a patient suffering from nausea? Then again, even if it were, how might a physician safely administer such a toxic substance? Hannaman's answer was to water it down...again and again. He put a drop of arsenic in a tub of water, took a drop of that and added it to a second tub of water and so forth and so on through perhaps a hundred tubs. At that point not a single molecule of the original substance would be found in the resulting mixture. It would be 100% water.

So how come a lady writes to me saying she's had great success using Homeopathic remedies for arthritis and that they cured her husband's skin condition? In a word - Placebo. When post-operative patients are given a sugar pill for pain, more than half report feeling better...the more receptive the individual and the more reassuring the doctor, the greater the effect. The mind is an amazing analgesic. And when colored water is described as a potent topical solution for warts, in a significant percent of cases, the warts will slowly disappear. Indeed, with so many anthropological reports of Witch Doctors casting voodoo spells that kill, who would doubt the power of suggestion? Certainly not physicians! The British Medical Journal recently reported that 41% used over-the-counter pain tablets, 38% used vitamins, 13% used antibiotics and 13% used sedatives strictly as a means of convincing patients their symptoms were being addressed. And do note - regarding the lady who wrote of her success with homeopathy - that placebo is especially efficacious when dealing with both the highly subjective discomfort of arthritis and stress related skin conditions.

But now consider the downside of telling patients the truth. Medical professionals are usually reluctant to offer any sense of false hope. The reason for this is obvious. If they belittle a problem that gets worse, they look bad. If they exaggerate a problem that gets better, they look good. Oncologists can, all too frequently, find themselves in the unfortunate position of painting the grimmest of pictures. Of course they have no choice but to what extent might such a negative prognosis create a negative result? The Witch Doctor can, after all, use his suggestive power to help or harm. How much damage is done when a patient is told to put his affairs in order by an authority figure in a white coat? A study at UCLA concluded that the AIDS virus spread four times as fast in patients who gave up any hope of control over their disease. In a related animal study, rats were given electrical shocks after receiving transplanted malignant tumors. In those that were provided with a means of controlling the painful stimuli, their immune systems eliminated the cancer cells 64% of the time while those who had no such control survived only 23% of the time.

Look At It This Way
I can't in good conscience say that Homeopathic hocus-pocus is a legitimate therapy and yet am I justified in denying hope and the illusion of control? I know that on two separate occasions I was told that I had twelve months to live. The last time was almost twelve years ago. Recalling my feelings on those occasions, I can't say that a little false hope wouldn't have been appreciated. Indeed, when I declined additional treatment, I was told not to buy any green bananas. Since then, I've watched lots of bananas ripen.

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