Who does the placebo effect worry most? Doctors or the pharmaceutical industry? Hard to say. But whoever it is, scrambling to explain it away is common.
The Subversive Placebo Effect
By David Stone
Table of contents
- The Subversive Placebo Effect
- The Big Placebo Question They Never Ask
- The Medical Dark Side of the Placebo Effect
- Why Do Placebos Work?
- Complications Abound
- We still don’t know why…
- Spontaneous Healing, Spontaneous Remissions, Health Wild Cards
- Harnessing the Placebo Effect
- The Placebo Effect Conclusion
Both have cause to worry. The placebo effect shows that doctors sometimes have no more power over illness than tribal medicine men.
And Big Pharma is so concerned, they game drug trials by weeding out subjects believed likely to be influenced by placebos.
Lost in the discussion are larger questions and mystifying implications of the placebo effect.
One goal of this article is inviting your opinions and stories. Read, but also participate, if you can.
In my view…
Placebo Dictionary Definition: a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect.
In trials, they’re used as measuring devices. Do patients receiving treatment with real medicene benefit as much as those receiving an intentionally ineffective substitute? Whatever the answer, that’s the placebo effect.
The placebo effect is so common that real medicine administered by professionals must beat it in proving value.
So, you’d think we’d invest the same money and attention to placebos and why they work for so many people as we invest in developing new drugs and other treatments.
But we don’t. You can’t get rich on placebos.
Instead, strenuous efforts work at ruling them out, overcoming trust in the placebo effect and the magic of self-healing.
The Big Placebo Question They Never Ask
In an early version of this article, I asked readers this question.
Have you experienced a healing that can’t be explained or seems like a miracle?
It wasn’t scientific, but half is a huge number in any case.
The Medical Dark Side of the Placebo Effect
Where are we coming from?
Bank on your doctor’s not discussing the benefits of the placebo effect or what it implies about our ability to heal ourselves. Some advanced practitioners will, but good luck finding one.
The larger question, though, the one no one asks, is this: what’s up with people who don’t respond to placebos or treatment? Can we know the truth of what works for so many without understanding why it fails for others?
If the placebo effect or strategies for self-healing offer natural, individual paths to health, what must be avoided or pushed out of the way?
And if we can’t answer these questions because orthodoxy sits in the way, who can we trust?
Taking a Refreshed Look at Modern Medicine
Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself by Lissa Rankin
A disillusioned physician, Lissa Rankin took matters into her own hands, determined to heal herself from a tidal wave of personal crises. Her research, especially on placebos, is more detailed than you will find elsewhere. Her conclusions are a ray of sunshine.
Why Do Placebos Work?
The commonly accepted theory on why placebos work is that, as the cliche goes, it’s all in your head. Your belief that the medicine or treatment will or will not work is the critical issue.
Others believe that your own conviction that you will be healed is the catalyst, and some trust that God, via prayer or faith, intervenes, melting away tumors and other factors in illness.
Isn’t it just as likely that a natural process, our own body’s efforts to gain balance and well-being, is enough to cure us most or almost all of the time?
When we think hard about our bodies, though, 50 trillion plus cells, thousands of simultaneous systems, endless interactions with the environment, we realize that no simple answer is possible.
Multiple elements must be involved, just as they are with anything else.
When we look at the placebo effect and effective treatment backward, how does the perspective change?
Take a situation we’re familiar with.
Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, doesn’t it? We all know that.
Or does it?
A mere ten percent of smokers get lung cancer; so, if smoking causes it, it’s not very effective.
Other diseases? Statistics show that only one in three smokers will die from a smoking related disease, not even a majority.
How powerful would a treatment, placebo or otherwise, need to be to be recognized as effective? If our bodies are so resilient and resourceful they prevent cigarette smoking from triggering lung cancer, how powerful must any effective treatment be?
The truth is, we don’t know why cigarette smoke spurs cancerous cells in ten percent of smokers, but not in the other ninety percent. We do know that, once cancer settles into a lung, most victims will die.
We still don’t know why…
I’ve used cigarette smoking and lung cancer as an easy example because we’ve all heard about it, and the statistics are well known. But mysteries abound in all kinds of illnesses and cures.
We may know what works, but we seldom know why. The placebo effect clouds all results.
And there’s something else.
Spontaneous Healing, Spontaneous Remissions, Health Wild Cards
If anything rattles our faith in the certainties of modern medicine, the instances where nothing but some kind of magic explains recovery does it.
What worked in the sick person’s favor, trigging recovery?
Complete, lasting recovery.
In Lissa Rankin’s Mind Over Medicine, she tells us that her years of experience as a physician showed her that virtually all of her colleagues have seen miracle cures in their practices.
The events were often so inexplicable that the stories never leaked outside the doctors’ lounge.
The connection between the placebo effect and spontaneous healing is that neither reveals a confirmed explanation. It’s as if healing just happens.
Numerous documented cases exist of individuals who were told their condition was incurable, maybe they had only a few months to live, and then, the illnesses, typically cancers, vanished without treatment.
A chance encounter…
One spring, my wife and I met friends, all career biologists, on a vacation in the Swiss Alps. An amateur, I felt like I was in a candy store of information.
One afternoon, Valeri, one of the biologists engaged in research, and I relaxed in the cool sun.
I shared my theory that there are many more spontaneous remissions from cancer than those recognized.
To my surprise, Valeri agreed immediately.
While my idea was that we missed healings because the original illness hadn’t been recorded by a doctor, she knew something I never guessed at.
In her hospital, they saw the evidence because, even though a biopsy showed a cancer had metastasized, the source was no longer around.
So, something is going on. We heal ourselves, but we also fail to heal ourselves.
We observe the placebo effect in a way that defies logic, and we find that spontaneous healing occurs without medical intervention.
Harnessing the Placebo Effect
The problem with many explanations about why we heal is that none tell us why we sometimes don’t.
I feel the same way when hearing about divine intervention credited for some surviving accidents and natural disasters while others don’t.
“God saved me!”
What God picks and choses victims and for what reason? Does one pray harder than another?
Divine intervention plays well with survivors. With true believers who don’t make it, God needs a better explanation.
And I’ll bet plenty of sinners and plenty of atheists survive along with the righteous.
Medicine, surgery, drugs? We’re told they work. But without knowing why they also don’t work, we can’t, in any scientific way, say we know enough about them.
Take the placebo effect, its consistency across the centuries, the way spontaneous healing happened under the supervision of witch doctors, spell conjurers and Harvard trained physicians, and you see that our knowledge of healing, why it “works” and why it doesn’t, is far from explained.
But there are delicious hints...
For decades,, we’ve known that people believing their good health critical in a given situation, a family crisis, for example, are less likely to fall ill. Business executives, for example, don’t get sick until finishing a major project.
Maybe we all have the personal magic to stay well, and we use it without being aware.
A decade ago, a major, long term study produced two intriguing results. First, the most reliable predictor of personal health, five years into the future, is an individual’s beliefs about it.
A second finding, one that made me laugh, was a finding that the density of doctors in an area adversely effected overall health. The more doctors, the more illness…
The Placebo Effect Conclusion
Isn’t it more than a little strange that we know so little about something that effects us profoundly and might be the difference between life and death?
As a culture, we pass off the placebo effect as some sort of magic, a lucky accident that can’t be predicted.
History shows that’s not true. Fake medicines, even fake surgery can be as effective as the real thing.
Serious research, without conservative bias, into mysteries surrounding the placebo effect is crucial. Spontaneous healing, too.
Because of the power of the medical establishment and Big Pharma, both invested in resistance, we need unconventional means for gathering and studying the evidence.
Is there a better time to start than now?