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The Power of the Placebo Effect  04.06.2007

‘Take 2 of these pills in the morning for the next few days
and you will be just fine.”

For a long time, doctors have prescribed us with medicine to cure ailments. New medical research suggests that the medicine indeed might not be the cure. Is it the actual medicine that helps restore our health or is it our about what that medicine will do for us?

In a landmark study in the United States, six people with crippling knee pain were booked in to have knee arthroscopies to help their condition. For all six patients under a general anaesthetic, they made three incisions in the front of their knee, but the amount of operating from that point on varied. Two of the patients received the normal knee operation, two of the patients had only a small amount done, and the other two had nothing done at all. Therefore, in the last group, they ‘pretended’ to do the whole knee operation.

The results? Before the knee operation (or lack there of), all six patients had great difficulty walking due to severe knee pain. After the operation, all six patients experienced amazing recovery. All six (including those who had the pretend operation) experienced the same amount of healing and returned to pain-free knee movement.
Doctors have been using placebos for years, but this is the first instance I have heard of where they have done a placebo ‘operation’. In a US-based study in 2006, it was found that, out of 800 physicians, more than half (57%) have prescribed placebo medication for patients.

The power of one’s beliefs surrounding medication is clearly as powerful (if not more so) than the actual medication itself. It has been said that 350 years ago, Charles II cured 100,000 people by simply putting his hands on them. Since 1892, there have been 65 reported ‘miracles’ from people that have visited St. Bernadette in Lourdes.

In an eight week anti-depressant trial done at UCLA, half the participants were given placebos (sugar pills) whilst the other half were given real anti-depressant medication. One lady in the study was said to have suffered depression for 30 years which included crying spontaneously and often not wanting to get out of bed. She was hopeful the medication would have a positive effect and her spirits were greatly lifted as the medication seemed to work. Her husband and daughter said the change in her was phenomenal. At the end of the trial, the lady was informed that she had in fact been taking the placebo for the last eight weeks. She was stunned and her response to the doctor was: ‘You have to be wrong’. During the trial they actually did scans on her brain which showed a real physical positive change to her mood yet there was no medication in the tablets she was taking. Irving Kirsch of the University of Connecticut completed a similar study in 2002 on anti-depressant medication. The result showed that the actual medication performed only two points better (60) than the placebo (58 points).

While there is mounting evidence in the power of the placebo, the jury is still out as to its proper ethical use with traditional medical procedures. However, there is a clear message to come from all the research: there is incredible power in what we think and believe about ourselves and our wellbeing. The mind is indeed the most powerful supercomputer in the world today and we should never underestimate the mind-body connection.

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