The much-maligned placebo has, in recent years, been getting unusual attention from some medical researchers because of unexpected results that cannot yet be fully explained.
They have found that “under the right circumstances, a placebo can be just as effective as traditional treatments.”
A placebo is “a substance that has no therapeutic effect, and is used as a control in testing new drugs.” Common placebos include inert tablets (like sugar pills), inert injections (saline solution), sham or fake surgery, and other procedures.
If a new drug performs no better than a placebo, that drug is rejected as having no curative effect. But what if, by taking a placebo, the patient gets well, although he knows he was taking only a placebo that’s clearly labeled on the bottle and not the real drug? What then?
This is exactly what happened to a 71-year-old patient named Linda, whose case was cited in a recent Time magazine article about “Placebo’s New Power.”
Linda suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for over 20 years. She volunteered to participate in a clinical trial for a new drug. She was given a placebo pill which was clearly labeled on the bottle, and doctors told her there were no active ingredients in the pills.
After taking the placebo pills twice daily for three weeks, Linda was symptom-free, reported Time. So, what happened?
Placebos often work because people don’t know they are getting one. But why does it also work even if people taking the placebo know they are getting only a placebo?
No one knows the answer for sure. The mechanism of the placebo effect is not yet fully understood.
A 2014 study led by professor Ted Kaptchuck of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center explores this by testing how people reacted to a migraine pain medication.
One group took a migraine drug labeled with the drug’s name. Another took a placebo labeled “placebo,” and a third group took nothing.
“The researchers discovered that the placebo was 50 percent as effective as the real drug to reduce pain after a migraine attack.”
According to Kaptchuck, “The placebo effect is more than positive thinking—believing a treatment or procedure will work. It is about creating a stronger connection, between the brain and body and how they work together.
“Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you. They won’t lower your cholesterol or shrink a tumor. They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea.”
I am not so sure I agree with the statement that placebos “can’t cure you,” because it has been shown by some medical researchers that the mind is capable of effecting a real cure of a physical disease without the intervention of drugs.
According to Time, “Some experts argue that the human body subconsciously responds physically and physiologically to the ritual of treatment, like Pavlov’s dogs, while others argue it’s the power of positive thinking.
“Doctors at Houston’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center have shown that sham surgeries— slicing people’s knees open and sewing them back up without any treatment—provide the same improvement for people with osteoarthritis of the knee as real knee surgery.”
Filipino faith healers whom I observed and investigated for over 15 years have been shown to effect real cures by performing bare-handed psychic surgeries which mimic actual medical procedures. Whether the body of the patient is actually opened or not has been an open question up to now. No one can tell just how placebos can effect a cure.
Why some people respond positively to placebos while others do not is still an open mystery. I have never been able to answer the question of why one of two patients with the same illness will respond to psychic surgery positively and get well, while another will be a total failure.
This is the same with the placebo effect. No one really knows why it works.