A placebo is defined as an inactive substance resembling a medication, given for psychological effect or as a control in evaluating a medicine believed to be active. However the placebo only fits this description under the restraints it has been given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which refers to the placebo as an investigational new drug. In actuality, up until the present much of medicine was built on placebos.
“Not very long ago, the rituals and symbols of healing constituted the bulk of the physicians armamentarium. In the early decades of the 20th century, most of the medication that doctors carried in their little black bags and kept in their office cabinets had little or no pharmacological value against the maladies for which they were prescribed. Nevertheless, their use in the appropriate clinical context was no doubt frequently beneficial.”(Brown, 6)
Even though placebos have been proven effective medicine time and time again the FDA remains reluctant to approve them for anything more than clinical research. The FDA stands on their disapproval of placebos as medicine on the basis that patients are to be given the best treatment available. Who is to say that a placebo is not as, if not more effective than the accepted remedy?
There are an endless variety of cases that have proven placebos inconclusively effective. Among the most famous of these cases is the story of “Mr. Wright,” who was found to have cancer and in 1957 was given only days to live. Hospitalized in Long Beach, California, with tumors the size of oranges, he heard that scientists had discovered a horse serum, Krebiozen, that appeared to be effective against cancer. After Wright begged to receive the serum, his physician, Dr. Philip West, finally agreed and gave wright the injection on a Friday afternoon, not telling Wright that injection consisted only of water. The following Monday the doctor was astonished to find that the patient’s tumors were gone. Dr. West later wrote the tumors, ” had melted like snowballs on a hot stove.” At Tulane University, Dr. Eileen Palace has been using a placebo to restore sexual arousal in women who say they are nonorgasmic. The women are hooked up to a biofeedback machine that they are told measures their vaginal blood flow, an index of arousal. Then they are shown sexual stimuli that would arouse most women. The experiment then tricks the women by sending a false feedback signal, within 30 seconds, that their vaginal blood flow has increased. Almost immediately after they become genuinely aroused. In another case a study was carried out in Japan on 13 people that were extremely allergic to poison ivy. Each individual was rubbed on one arm with a harmless leaf and told
that it was poison ivy and then rubbed on the opposite arm with poison ivy and told that it was harmless. All thirteen broke out in a rash where the harmless leaf had contacted their arm. Only two reacted to the poison ivy leaves. (Blakeslee, 2) In yet another example, patients with angina pectoris, chest pain, associated with heart disease, have been shown to improve substantially following an operation that involved nothing more than a simple skin incision. Angina also improved following a type of artery surgery once thought to be effective but later found to be ineffective. (Turner, 1) These are just a few of a great number of cases that prove the effectiveness of placebos.
How do placebos work? There are many theories on how placebos work but really no definite answers. Many believe that the response to placebos is one of conditioning. That is that the site of a doctor, his white coat, the sterile smell, and a prescribed medication is equated with being cured, and because we think that we will get better we do. Some think that a placebo might reduce stress, allowing the body to regain some natural optimum level of health. Others believe that special molecules in the brain help carry out the placebo effect. A recent study found that stressed animals could produce a valium like substance in their brain if they have some control over the source of the stress. People must certainly share similar brain chemistry. (Blakeslee, 3) In any case, do we have to
know how a placebo works if it is proven that it does work? There are certain birth control methods and stress therapies that work effectively, without explanation and with FDA approval.
Many physicians discredit placebos because the feel that the use of a placebo is lying to the patient. However it is impossible to prove that doctors aren’t lying by putting their faith in accepted treatments because it is impossible to prove that the treatment doesn’t rely, even in part, on a placebo effect. It is inconsevable to the medical field that the treatment is not 100% responsible for the cure. ” Nobody wants to own it. Even shamans and witch doctors would be offended by the idea that their healing powers depended on the placebo effect.”(Harvard college, 1)
It is important to understand that placebos are not a cure and that they cannot cure. The patient’s belief in the value of the treatment makes the treatment work. There is no question that the placebo effect is very real. Between 30 and 80% of various studies participants have shown positive reactions to placebos. They clearly reduce the feelings of pain and can work against depression and insomnia among ailments. Many experimental fields such as acupuncture and chiropractic rely on a placebo effect, admittedly or not. It is also very conceivable to me that the only reason that placebos are not effective
against many terminal illnesses, such as cancer and AIDs, is because of the way the diseases are presented to us, as incurable. Who could ever believe that you could be cured if you where told that you where going to die.
I believe that placebos could make great strides in medicine if they where FDA approved for medicinal use. They would cut down on treatment costs and the use of needless medications. The use of placebos could be extremely effective in situations to reduce stress and as a remedy for small ailments such as colds. There are many instances where medications such as antibiotics are prescribed only to ease the patient’s mind. A common saying is that if you treat a cold it will last a week, but if you leave it alone it will be gone in seven days. As a parting thought I invite you to think about all the times that a mother has made a child’s pains go away just by kissing it better.
Blakeslee, Sandra. “Placebo.” New York Times. 13, October 1998: Article 2. A collection of stories documenting the success of the placebo effect in medicine. This article was an excellent source of validation to the healing effects of placebos.
Brown, A. Walter. “Harnessing the Placebo Effect.” Hospital Practice. 1999: 5-6. A collection of theories on how the placebo effect works along with a description of where the placebo effect could be incorporated into modern medicine and how the placebo made up much of early medicine. I found this to be an excellent source to find quotes.
Kwik, Jessica. “Placebo Power as Good Medicine.” Imprint Online: Science. 23, January 1998: volume 20, number 23. A collection of statistics and doctors descriptions of placebo treatment success rates. This was an excellent source of statistical facts along with various views to support the placebo effect.
Turner, A. Judith. “Placebo Effects on Pain.” Healthline Magazine. April 1995: volume 14, number 4. A collection of documented cases of successful treatments incorporating the placebo effect along with theories on how the placebo works. This article gives great insight into how placebos can be incorporated into modern medicine along with a brief overview of how the placebo is thought to work.
President and fellows of Harvard College. “The Pleasing Placebo.” Mind/Brain/Behavior. 1995: A collection on theories of how the placebo effect works and in contrast how it could fail. A great source of quotes concerning why the placebo is denied in the medical field and how the placebo heals.