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 Witch Doctor Will See You Now

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 sometimes does. Why that should be so, no one knows. 

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