The Placebo Effect: Mind over Medicine
When we hear the phrase, “The mind controls the body,” we immediately think of the voluntary processes we make our bodies do. If you want to pick up a toy from the ground, you will direct your brain on how you want to move to pick it up, and it will then move the necessary muscles to achieve that goal. This process of “need-order-achieve” is the same mechanism that directs our everyday lives. An important question must be asked here: what if this procedure could be used for more? Today, scientists and physicians around the world are discovering a new, deeper meaning to the phrase. Our brains can influence our bodies in ways that, at a time, were thought the stuff of folklore. One of the most prevalent examples of this power is the placebo effect. The placebo effect is defined as an inactive treatment or substance that looks and feels just like a regular medical treatment. The placebo effect’s perplexing and astonishing ability to affect our bodies has spurred physicians (and their patients!) to rediscover the true potential of the human body.
In the past few decades, numerous medical experiments have proven that placebo treatments, or “sham” treatments, are in fact effective in healing real diseases. One of the most prominent of these experiments was lead by Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University. In his tests, he treated two groups of unknowing patients with two different placebo treatments and told both groups that they might experience uncomfortable side effects. Surprisingly enough, about a third of the patients called back complaining of the “side effects” while the remaining two-thirds noted physical improvement of their conditions. His studies prove that not only do patients receiving placebos feel better (as some physicians argue), but they also physically improve (“The Placebo Phenomenon”).
Another example of the potency of placebos is the study conducted at the Houston Veteran’s Hospital by leading surgeons. Their study included performing real knee surgery on half of a group of patients while performing fake knee surgery on the second half. The results were groundbreaking: those who underwent the actual surgery fared no better than those who received placebo treatments. From these findings, the doctors conducting the study concluded that the surgery itself was not responsible for the improvement, but the effect of the thought of surgery was. In other words, a patient’s progress is due to the ability of the mind to heal the body when one expects treatment to be happening ("Research Shows Placebos may have a Place in Everyday Treatments”).
The Science behind the Placebo Effect
While the exact and precise reason the placebo effect is so effective is a modern mystery, several theories that could lead to a definite answer are circulating the medical community. The first of which: the placebo effect works because we want it to. Scientifically speaking, placebos have no reason to work as well as a medicine does: they hold not therapeutic value and should therefore, not affect the body in any way. Yet, patients who are given placebos, whether they know it or not, show the same results (sometimes even better results) as those who are given real medical treatments. (Placebos are not secretive: 60% of patients who knew they were given placebos still showed improvement. (“Placebos Work—Even without Deception”)) How is this possible? As Petr Skrabanek and Jame McCormick mentioned in their book, Follies and Fallacies in Medicine, "The physician's belief in the treatment and the patient's faith in the physician exert a mutually reinforcing effect; the result is a powerful remedy that is almost guaranteed to produce an improvement and sometimes a cure."(“Placebo Effect”) Ever since we were children, we were brought up to believe that the local doctor could cure anything we brought to his office. As adults, that...
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