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article imageThe Placebo Effect: It's All In Your Head

By Pamela Jean     May 1, 2007 in Health
If a sugar pill could alleviate your depression, would you take that over Prozac? If an injection of saline solution put an end to your back pain, as opposed to cortisone, would that be a better choice? The Placebo Effect is real and proven. Is it used?
It has been proven effective time and time again. The Placebo Effect - you are told that the pill you are given will reduce your fever, cure your pain or lower your blood pressure, you believe it. Your mind tells your body that the drug is "curing" what ails you, and your mind does just that!
The use of placebo's date back to the 1800's. The "tonics" sold to alleviate a myriad of ailments were often nothing more than colored sugar water.
Studies have shown that over 35 to 75% of people suffering from various ailments report improvement when treated with nothing more that sugar pills or saline injections. Profound improvement is noted in those suffering from illnesses such as Parkinson's Disease, where patients have "good and bad" days, as well as those suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. The bad days lessen considerably, as the good days increase.
In 1939 an Italian surgeon devised a technique to alleviate his patients angina. He made small incisions in the chest and tied knots in 2 arteries. The results were amazing. All reported improvement. One third were cured.
20 years later clinical trials were done to test the surgeons technique. This time though, of the 17 patients only 8 were actually "tied" and the remaining 9 received nothing but small incisions. All reported improvement!
In 1962, the Food and Drug Administration decreed that placebo-controlled clinical trials, those in which half the patients are treated and half get dummy pills, were the gold standard for new drug approvals.
Now the question of placebo surgery is in the forefront. Is it ethical for a surgeon to tell you he is going to do arthroscopic surgery to relieve your chronic knee pain, but to actually only make fake incisions and tell you that the knee was rinsed and scraped? Then send you home with rehabilitation exercises and wait to see if your pain is actually alleviated?
In the summer of 1994, a surgeon named J. Bruce Moseley found himself engaged in an elaborate form of make-believe. Moseley had 10 patients scheduled for an operation intended to relieve the arthritis pain in their knees. The patients were men -- most of them middle-aged, all former military guys -- and they weren't ready to consign themselves to the rocking chair yet. So they had decided to take a risk and volunteer for a study that must have sounded, when Moseley first told them about it, rather peculiar.
All 10 were told that they would be wheeled into the operating room. 2 would receive the actually surgery, 3 merely a mild scraping, and 5 of the men nothing more that fake incisions to mimic the surgery. All would be wheeled to the recovery room and be sent home with crutches, pain killers and rehab exercises.
It was important that Moseley have no idea which patient would be receiving which treatment prior to the actual surgery. It was thought that if he knew ahead of time he might treat each man differently. He was given a sealed envelope when he entered the operating room telling him which surgery he was to perform. Only the anesthetist and the nurse assisting him were in on the secret.
So, did the placebo effect work? Yes, it did! 6 months after the initial treatment all 10 men reported improvement. They all stated they had much less pain and none were unhappy with the outcome.
This particular study was far too small to draw any conclusions, but an additional 180 patients were added to the study.
Sylvester Colligan, a 76-year-old World War II veteran from Beaumont, Tex., was assigned to the placebo group in Moseley and Wray's expanded study. Colligan doesn't sound all that at ease with the term placebo, but he does know his surgery consisted of only shallow incisions. More important, he knows that he has no pain in his knee now and that he can mow his yard again and walk wherever he wants. "The surgery was two years ago and the knee never has bothered me since," he says.
The truth of the placebo effect is huge. With 35 to 75 percent of people showing improvement when given nothing more than a sugar pill, should this method of treatment be considered by Doctors and HMO's in this country? Or, would it amount to quackery and fraud on the part of the medical professionals? If you go to your doctor complaining of migraine headaches and he gives you a "sample" of a new drug designed for just such a malady, you take the pills for a week, you headaches are gone - and you then find out the pills were nothing more than sugar - would you be angry, or relieved?
There are numerous reports of patients showing remarkable improvement when being treated with "fake" allergy pills. 50% of sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome reported significant improvement from placebo medication. Warts were painted with brightly colored ink and the patients were told they would go away - and they did! Persons suffering from asthma showed an opening of their airways when they were told that the oxygen they were inhaling contained asthma medication.
There is a thought in the medical community that placebo's are merely lies. But the evidence is overwhelming - they are "Lies that Heal".
What if people realized that they could feel better simply by believing they would feel better, as opposed to taking various drugs netting huge profits to the drug companies, as well as a number of potentially harmful side effects to the patient?
Would you feel deceived, or relieved? Would you rather have a "real" drug or would a injection of saline solution, if it cured what ailed you, be just a good - if not better?
More about Placebo, Surgery, Ethical, Fda
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