Originally published in The Daily Toreador.
I don’t read many monthly magazines, but I’m enough of a geek that “Wired” appeals to me. As someone who has dealt with a variety of health issues throughout my life, the subject of one article in this month’s issue caught my eye: the placebo effect.
For those not aware, a placebo is essentially a sugar pill. It is made to look exactly like a pill of a real drug. The idea behind a placebo in terms of drug development is to test whether or not a drug in question actually has any affect on the person taking it, or whether it does nothing at all.
The article dealt primarily with the apparent growing strength of the placebo effect in pharmaceutical tests. The effect has such a big impact on medicine that a drug will not be approved for distribution unless it can beat the placebo when it comes to curing patients.
One particular ailment referred to was depression. As it turns out, even well established drugs of today such as Prozac are having trouble beating the placebo.
Curious, I decided to do a little more research, and this sort of thing indeed seems to be happening across the board. The LA Times even reported on August 6th that vertebroplasty, a spinal surgery that is performed 80,000 times a year and is considered highly effective at relieving pain and increasing mobility, is no more effective than a procedure in which nothing is done to the patient at all.
Interestingly, a story in 2001 from the New York Times painted a different picture, when two Danish researchers concluded that the placebo effect was “more myth than science.” Their paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine – the same journal that published the spinal surgery findings.
I find myself asking the same question a lot of researchers are: why is the placebo effect so strong? And almost as interesting, why does it seem to be getting stronger?
There are of course a number of different theories and schools of thought, but one thing I take away from it is this: we rely too much on modern medicine.
Don’t get me wrong. We have received some amazing things from medical science, and I would probably be fair in saying that it has saved my life in the past. Doctors, medicine, surgeries … these are all things we should be thankful to have.
But I think we sometimes take it too far.
It seems like we take medicine for everything these days. We drink caffeine to stay awake. We take ginko biloba to stay focused. We heal headaches, coughs, stomach aches, itchy arms, and more. Sure, I definitely see the appeal in a quick fix for every discomfort. It’s a great dream. But I don’t think it’s how are bodies are meant to operate.
Think of witch doctors and Native American remedies. Think of old fashioned “cure all” pills that people swore cured their cold. While there may have been legitimately helpful ingredients in some of these medications (if they weren’t just scams, like most “cure alls”), you have to wonder if the main reason patients were cured – and have always been cured – was the placebo effect.
The human body is an amazing thing. Whether you believe that it was brilliantly designed by a creator or if it’s the result of years of evolution, no scientist can deny that there are things about our bodies that we simply don’t understand. It may be capable of things we haven’t even considered.
I remember a line in the movie “K-Pax” in which the character of Prot has essentially been giving patients of a psychiatric ward advice on how to cure themselves – without a degree and without the use of medicine. He tells the doctor assigned to his case, “All beings have the ability to heal themselves.”
Whether that’s entirely true or not, I think we need to give our bodies more chances to do its job than we’re often willing to.