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The Power of Placebos and Mind-Body Health

Marcey Shapiro, MD

Placebos are powerful medicines. Researchers refer to their effects as the “placebo problem.” They are factored into drug trials because twenty-five to seventy percent of individuals will improve using placebo alone. Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University believes this may be as high as ninety percent in some situations. This is twenty- five to seventy percent above the number that would improve anyway if there were no intervention of any sort.

Some research indicates that the bigger and more elaborate the placebo, the greater the likelihood of success. For example, sham operations have been done as part of studies on placebo effect. In one small but well-known study done at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Houston in 1994, Dr. Bruce Moseley worked with a group of ten patients with arthritic knee pain. The patients consented to be part of a study, and all knew they would have either a real or a sham operative procedure. In fact, only two had the full arthroscopic knee surgery, three had a washing of the inside of the knee joint (one part of arthroscopic surgery), and five merely had three flesh cuts around the knee to simulate the appearance of an operation, but no actual surgery of any sort was performed. All ten reported significant improvement in their pain after the “operation.” Even six months later, all the patients were satisfied with the outcomes of their “surgeries.” The study was repeated with a larger group, 180 patients, and the results, published in 2002 in the distinguished journal The New England Journal of Medicine, found no difference in outcomes for patients who had real arthroscopic surgery versus placebo.  In the United States, placebo pills used to be available for prescription but were eventually deemed unethical except for clinical trials and are no longer available. So even “hard science” acknowledges that something is happening with placebos, causing a “placebo problem” that is yet another elephant in the living room leading us to the tricky role of mind and consciousness.

From the new premise that we are spiritual beings, sparks of divinity, creators, it is easy to see that the magic in the placebo is us. The power of placebo is the power of belief, the power of focus. The more we believe, the better the outcome. That may well be the power of many drugs and even vitamins. The earliest trials of SSRI antidepressants like Fluoxetine (well known as the brand Prozac®) and Sertraline (well known as the brand Zoloft®) were disappointing due to the meager benefits demonstrated by the drugs. But as more prescriptions were written and more doctors believed in them, they, like Tinker Bell, grew magically stronger. Later trials of the same drugs, which by then were popular and widely accepted, showed much more robust benefits.

Excerpted from Transforming the Nature of Health: A Holistic Vision of Healing that Honors Our connection to the Earth, Others, and Ourselves  by Marcey Shapiro, MD, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2012 by Marcey Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

Stay tuned for more thoughts from Marcey Shapiro, MD,  on “Transforming Health” and Heart Centered Living

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