The Witch Doctor Will See You
I remember a woman telling me about a
problem she had with her son when he was still a little boy. He
had become a chronic bed wetter and you can just imagine the
chaos that caused. Finally, she had an idea. She told him their
family doctor had prescribed a very strong, very expensive
medicine that was to be taken at bedtime. A single dose did the
trick! No more accidents. What was that magical potion? Tap
water with a few drops of red food coloring. The woman had just
rediscovered the Placebo Effect.
Placebos have been around for centuries
because (as in the case above) they sometimes work. The word
itself comes from the Latin phrase: I Shall Please and that's
what they're meant to do. Let's say a patient comes in
complaining of a slight headache. A thorough exam along with
assorted lab tests are negative. The conservative approach would
be to wait and see but this does nothing to please the patient.
How would you feel if your physician said he hadn't a clue and
sent you home? Compare that to hearing that you're suffering
from an idiopathic malady and a concerned physician with lots of
bedside manner writes a prescription just for you.
Giving a sugar pill in place of a
legitimate medication can be considered unethical so some
doctors will prescribe a vitamin or an over-the-counter
painkiller. In fact, more than 50% of practitioners have
reported doing exactly that and relying on belief and/or
expectation and/or who-knows-what to effect a cure.
But don't jump to the conclusion that
sugar pills can't be seen as legitimate medication.
Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic
Encounter (PiPS) is the first multidisciplinary research group
designed to evaluate the effects of placebos. Consider some of
their findings: One study showed that antidepressants work as
well as psychotherapy. Another study showed that placebos work
as well as antidepressants. Following that line of reasoning,
placebos become a form of psychotherapy.
And the truly amazing part of all this
is that a placebo can work even when the patient knows full well
it's a placebo! Functional MRIs are a means of looking at what
the brain is doing in real time and they have been used to show
that dummy pills can be just as effective as real
pharmaceuticals in generating the release of neurotransmitters
such as endorphins and dopamine. There are even some genes that
may be involved in how effective a placebo will be in certain
individuals. And don't think that placebos are just fake pills.
Fake treatments such as acupuncture using fake needles in fake
locations can sometimes be as effective as the real thing. One
patient said: I don't have to understand it or believe it
because it's going to work anyway.
Look At It This Way
Aromatherapy, hypnosis, witch doctors,
supplements, holy healers, homeopathy, vitamins, reflexology,
iridology, bioharmonics. Have I listed one that you're convinced
works for you? A placebo can take many forms and while it can be
proven not to work...it sometimes does. Why that should be so,
no one knows.
Contact Dr. Mason with
comments/questions at: DrSBMason@aol.com