PureInsight | April 20, 2008
[Another superb set of examples about how powerful the mind is - PureInsight Science Editor]
Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime Prime Minister, remarked, "To
almost every question there is an answer that is clear, concise,
coherent, and wrong!" For years we've been told that anti-depressant
drugs were the be-all-and-end-all for depressed patients.
Now, a recent report claims that placebos are just as effective for
many patients. So should doctors use placebos (dummy pills) to trick
patients? The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) helps to answer
Opponents of placebo therapy say physicians should never resort to
deception. They argue that placebos have no therapeutic value and
should be consigned to the Dark Ages. After all, this is 2008, the age
of scientific medicine.
But how scientific have we been in the recent past? Henry Beecher, a
former professor of anesthesia, Harvard Medical School, argued in 1956
that all drugs should be tested with double-blind studies. This would
determine whether a drug worked better than a placebo. Physicians were
shocked to find that 650 of their time-honored drugs were duds! They
were quickly pulled off the market.
Dr. Beecher carried out further studies. He confirmed that placebos
cured 58 percent of those complaining of seasickness and 33 percent of
those in pain. They also helped 35 percent of those suffering from
angina, headaches, tension, anxiety, and the common cold. Dummy pills
even reduced the temperature of some patients with fever. And a few
patients with Parkinson's disease improved.
A study at the University of Oklahoma reported a frightening
occurrence. A patient suffering from anxiety was given a placebo.
Fifteen minutes later his blood pressure fell, his skin became clammy,
and he collapsed.
High-priced psychotherapy has also been linked to an elaborate form of
placebo therapy. In a study at Vanderbilt University, untrained college
professors achieved the same results as well-trained psychologists when
treating psychological problems in students.
Researchers have found that people can also become addicted to
placebos. One schizophrenic patient became so addicted that she
consumed 10,000 dummy pills in one year.
But not all placebos are pills. Danish surgeons divided patients with
Meniere's disease [an inner ear disorder that can cause dizziness,
hearing loss, and loss of balance] into two groups. Fifty percent
received the standard operation, the other half were treated with a
small skin incision. An equal number of patients were helped by the
But why had ineffective drugs worked so well in the past? Simply
because [print and] broadcast commercials claimed they were effective
and millions of viewers believed them. [As well as the physicians who
prescribed them - Ed.] Besides, many over-the-counter drugs are used
for ailments that are self-limiting. So patients will get better
whether they swallow a $20 drug, a sugar pill, or pour themselves a
scotch-and-soda. Tincture of time would cure them.
But is it ethical to use placebos? Sir William Osler, a great judge of
human nature, once mused that it was the taking of pills that separated
humans from animals. Today he would roll over in his grave if he could
witness the epidemic of "pillitis" among medical consumers. And the
host of profit-motivated companies willing to provide them with drugs
of questionable value.
The best argument for using placebos is that dummy pills don't kill.
And they protect consumers from their own folly. The philosophy, "let
the buyer beware," simply doesn't work when it comes to drugs. Too many
people still naively believe they can find nirvana by swallowing a
They forget that every drug must be metabolized by the liver and
excreted by the kidneys. Moreover, there's often a fine line between
what organs tolerate and what destroys them. The primary cause of
accidental liver poisoning in North America is a best-selling minor
In fact, even seeking medical attention today is becoming more
dangerous. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports
there are 700,000 U.S doctors, and they cause 120,000 accidental deaths
every year, or 0.171 accidental deaths per physician per year.
The FBI says there are 80 million gun owners in the United States; they
cause 1,500 accidental deaths per year, or just 0.000188 deaths per gun
owner per year. It's a trifle shocking that doctors are 9,000 times
more dangerous than gun owners! And almost everyone has more than one
Need I say more about placebos and doctors?