Encouraging News on Placebos

In one of the most encouraging articles I’ve read for a long time[1], 97% of a sample of 783 UK family doctors reported in a study carried out by the Universities of Oxford and Southampton that they had given a placebo to at least one of their patients. Some said they do so on a regular basis. Half had told their patients that the remedies had helped other patients, without specifically telling them they were prescribing a placebo.

This is a huge step forward towards general recognition of the role of the mind in health, ill-health and healing, and acceptance of the potential of informational remedies. Apparently even the UK Royal College of General Practitioners now acknowledges that there is a place for placebos in medicine.

A co-author of the study, Dr Jeremy Howick, was quoted as saying, ‘This is not about doctors deceiving patients,’ (which is how Big Pharma has often characterised the use of placebos) but that ‘doctors clearly believe that placebos can help patients’.

Evenso, the BBC report still refers to ‘sham’ treatments’ and ‘unproven treatments’ as if the author, Michelle Roberts, is still not really convinced.  She writes that three quarters of doctors claimed to offer ‘unproven treatments’ such as complementary therapies on a daily or weekly basis, and even refers to ‘fake’ acupuncture (which has been used successfully for over five thousand years)  in such terms. She misses the point – in most cases it is not the medicine that brings about healing, but the patient’s own healing abilities restoring equilibrium and removing the resistance to full health.

Research shows that placebos are most effective a relieving subjective conditions such as pain, and their effect is based on cultivating the patient’s expectations of a cure. Hence the size, colour and packaging of placebos all play a role, as does the presentation and manner of the practitioner who prescribes them.

There are still those who consider the use of placebos as ‘fooling’ patients by giving them ‘useless’ pills and potions, even if they help bring about a cure. Some consider them dangerous because they deny the patient ‘effective’ treatment (by which they mean bio-chemical intervention), and others that they damage to doctor-patient relationship. Others claim that some ‘placebo’ treatments, such as prescribing vitamin supplements, are not inert, in that taking too much of some vitamins is harmful.

Then there are those who dismiss phenomena such as ‘spontaneous remission’ as pure chance and unworthy of investigation when in fact they could throw invaluable light on the healing process.

But in the longer term there is much more at stake here than whether placebos are unethical or ineffective, or whether this person or that person gets better and stays well. Our view of mind-body and informational medicine is related to our understanding of what human beings actually are and how we function. This is the greater prize.

©David Lawrence Preston, 18.10.2018

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[1] BBC website 21st March 2013, also widely reported on radio and TV.

Placebos – the Best Medicine

It is well known that pills and potions with no active ingredients can be just as effective as pharmaceutical/chemical medicines. Sometimes they are more effective, depending on how they are administered. They can cure illnesses for no other reason than the patient trusts the doctor and believes they can.  Despite the research evidence, placebos are still treated as a bit of a joke, as if patients are ‘fooled’ into getting well.

Of course, the pharmaceutical industry hates them – where’s the profit in simple, unbranded sugar pill? Or the credit? So the medical establishment – bankrolled by big pharma – considers them unethical. They say that giving patients pills with no active ingredients while pretending they are something else is deliberate deception. They dismiss them as useless and – worse – dishonest. Of course whether they are dishonest is a moot point, but useless they most certainly aren’t.

Placebos utilise the power of suggestion. Suggestion is a major influence on all our lives. Advertisers and politicians know this perfectly well, of course, and so do parents. When you were a child, did your mother ever ‘kiss it better’ when you hurt yourself? And it did feel better, didn’t it, even though there was no logical reason why it should? Doctors’ waiting rooms, white coats, stethoscopes and prescription pads are all loaded with suggestion. So are crystals, incenses, relaxation CDs, coloured lights and massage oils.

Research has shown over and over again that the effectiveness of placebos can be enhanced by skilfully enhancing their suggestive power. The colour of the pill, its name and packaging, the practitioner’s manner, the layout of the consulting room and waiting room, the language used and so on can all be manipulated to increase its healing power.

We may congratulate ourselves that this is a recent discovery, but it’s actually as old as our ability to smelt iron and build pyramids. We’ve always known that there’s a close connection between body and mind. Anxious thoughts can give rise to headaches, an upset stomach and so on. We tremble with fear and feel excitement at the sight of a lover.

So why did the Western medical establishment ignore the mind-body connection for so long? Put simply, you can’t see thoughts and you can’t measure their progress through the body. Then in the nineteen seventies and eighties, mainstream scientists  discovered the physical processes by which thoughts and emotions manifested as physical changes in the body.

Today, most doctors have made the connection. They understand that many illnesses have a psycho-somatic component, but there’s still much work to be done before it is fully understood, and we’re a long way off finding effective treatments for many psycho-somatic conditions.

It’s all a matter of belief. Most treatments only get optimum results if the patient believes in them. On the other hand, some beliefs are toxic. People who believe that illness is a sign of failure on their part, a punishment for wrongdoings and errors they have made heal slowly, if at all. And research shows that those who believe their illness is related to something that happened in a past life heal the slowest of all.

I used to know a lady who read palms, tarot cards and a crystal ball. Her readings were widely known in the area for their accuracy. I asked her what she actually saw in the crystal ball. She said nothing at all – it was just a ‘prop’ to add a touch of mystique to the proceedings. Smiling, she told me, ‘The information comes to me directly, as thought-impressions, words, mental images and sometimes physical sensations. The crystal ball is just there to impress the clients and make them feel they’re getting their money’s worth.’

I know some complementary practitioners who get excellent results with their clients by intuition. They quickly sense where the problem lies by observing and asking questions, and whatever tools and techniques they use – crystals, reiki, flower essences and so on, even homeopathy – are less important than whether the client thinks they work.

Some very sophisticated appliances – including computerised scanning devices with impressive graphics that utilise the language of energetic medicine and quantum physics – are little more than random number generators. Readings are hit and miss, cannot be verified nor replicated. Some of the ‘remedies’ connected to these devices have no demonstrable effect yet are sold at great expense; they are nothing but placebos. Sure, some clients get well, and that can’t be a bad thing, but many feel no benefit. It all depends on the confidence projected by the practitioner’s ‘performance’ (for this is what it is). If the client is unwilling to suspend disbelief, they get little or no benefit while paying through the nose for the experience.

However, just because there are some sharp operators in the market does not mean that we should dismiss placebos in general. The fact that they can work tells us something very important about illness and recovery. It actually tells us more about the way humans heal than any number of double-blind trials. They are the proof that, given the right circumstances, the belief in our ability to heal and that healing is taking place is all that is necessary.

Rather than polluting our bodies with chemicals and suffering their nasty side effects, wouldn’t it be better for the medical profession to investigate placebos more fully, and find better ways of using them? A medical version of the crystal ball – one that helps people to get well without causing them harm – would surely be a major advance!

 

©David Lawrence Preston, 18.5.2018

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Is religion just a form of placebo?

Our beliefs rule our lives and help to create our experience of life. They influence us whether we are paying attention to them or not and it doesn’t matter if they are true – the effect is the same. An untrue belief has just as powerful an effect as a true belief. The world we see is the sum total of our perceptions filtered through our beliefs.

We humans can convince ourselves of anything if we really want to. When we do our minds close, then we seek and find ‘evidence’ to support our views. That’s when beliefs run the risk of turning into prejudices. We even seek out people who agree with us and turn away from people who do not.

The Placebo Effect demonstrates how powerful beliefs can be. When people believe strongly enough that something is right, wise and useful then it usually has a positive effect on them. So if they believe that a personal G_d is watching over them, supporting and comforting, then they feel supported and comforted. It’s a nice feeling.

Similarly, when people believe that they are riddled with sin and that if they don’t reform a nasty fate awaits them after death, then their psychological (and in all probability their physical) welfare is negatively affected. Guilt, regret and despair are never healthy when carried to extremes. This is the Nocebo Effect.

Placebo and nocebo have been demonstrated time and time again in the medical world. In experiments, inert substances can heal or cause harm simply because the recipient believes they can. Coupled with the power of suggestion, placebos can give miraculous results.

So what about religion? Religion is all about belief, whether or not substantiated by factual evidence. Karl Marx famously referred to religion as the ‘opium of the masses.’ Perhaps ‘placebo’ or ‘nocebo of the masses’ would have been more appropriate.

 

Copyright David Lawrence Preston, 22.8.2016

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