Do you remember a time when you skinned your knee as a child, and went to your Mom or caregiver who “kissed it better”? In such situations, feeling better with no scientific explanation for why that might be can be attributed to your having experienced the “placebo effect.”
The word ‘placebo’ translates from the Latin to mean, ‘I shall please,’ from placere, ‘to please,’ and comes from a time in the Middle Ages when “placebo” referred to professional mourners-for-hire who sang at funeral masses, pretending to be the sorrowful bereaved.
The placebo effect was first recognized when anesthesiologist Henry Beecher reported successfully managing pain in injured soldiers after administering saline injections in place of morphine while working as a field physician for the Allies in World War II. Dr. Beecher watched a nurse give the saline injection to a patient complaining of excruciating pain prior to surgery, and was astonished to see how the patient showed little sign of pain or shock throughout the ensuing surgery. Dr. Beecher continued to repeat this placebo treatment of substituting salty injections for morphine, noting a high rate of positive responses.
Placebos are becoming an increasingly hot topic now, thanks to the way more and more people are experiencing positive placebo effects. Arthur Barsky, director of psychiatric research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, notes, “The placebo response was about twice as powerful than it was in the 1980s.” Placebos have even been proven effective when people knew they were receiving the placebo—and not the real medicine. It helps when study administrators say things like, “Do you know what a sugar pill is? A sugar pill is a pill with no medicine in it at all. I think this pill will help you as it has helped so many others. Are you willing to try this pill?” This statement was part of a standardized script read to participants in a classic non-blind placebo study in which all participants experienced marked improvement in just one week.
97% of the family doctors recently surveyed acknowledged that they have given placebos to one or more of their patients, which proves that doctors depend upon the placebo’s effect’s impressive track record. Very few legitimate pharmaceutical prescriptions can match, let alone exceed the placebo’s astonishing successes, with between 35% to 75% of placebo recipients experiencing frequent, substantial, and in some cases lasting improvement from ailments ranging from arthritis to depression.
Randi McCabe, director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Center at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Ontario commented, “Your belief that you’re going to get better, your attitude, does influence how you feel. And really, in cognitive behavior therapy, that is really what we’re trying to change: peoples’ beliefs, how they’re seeing their world, their perspective.” David H. Rosmarin notes, “Patients who had higher levels of belief in God demonstrated more effects of treatment. They seemed to get more bang for their buck.”
The placebo effect is successful for surgeries, too. In summer 1994, surgeon J. Bruce Moseley, team physician for the Houston Rockets, arranged a small-scale pilot study with middle-aged veterans. These volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three different groups: standard arthroscopic surgery (scraping and rinsing of the knee joints), rinsing of the knee joints with no scraping, and “sham” or placebo surgery. Dr. Moseley stabbed the placebo patients’ knees with a scalpel—and his behavior before, during, and after all three types of operations was identical. This was made easier by the fact that he’d only find out moments before the actual operation which type of procedure he’d be performing. Bruce Moseley had no expectation for positive results from the placebo surgery group; he was participating in the study because he was skeptical about the benefit of arthroscopic surgery to treat arthritis. Dr. Nelda Wray was in charge of health research at the Houston V.A., and asked Moseley how he could tell if those who improved from surgery weren’t benefiting primarily due to the placebo effect. Moseley was stunned by this question and responded, “It can’t be. This is surgery we’re talking about.” Dr. Wray replied, “You’re all wrong. The bigger and more dramatic the patient perceives the intervention to be, the bigger the placebo effect. Big pills have more than small pills, injections have more than pills and surgery has the most of all.” In this first study, the placebo worked like a charm. Even six months post operation, none of the patients knew which group they were in, and all ten men reported greatly reduced pain. The study was repeated, this time with 180 patients, and with similar results.
The astonishing efficacy of placebo surgeries is particularly striking in such studies as the ones reported in the New England Journal of Medicine involving arthroscopic knee surgery in 2002 and 2008. Positive improvements have been seen in 50% of study participants receiving placebo surgery for Parkinson’s disease, with most positive results associated with the most invasive placebo surgeries, and the most advanced cases of Parkinson’s disease. Numerous additional studies have shown phenomenal success of placebo treatments for everything from painting warts with brightly colored inert dye (with warts falling off when the color wore off); to doctors telling asthmatics they were inhaling a bronchiodilator when they weren’t; to fake ultrasound for post wisdom-tooth extraction patients relieving pain.
If placebos are so powerful, what do we know about how they work? Serious investigation into what makes placebos tick is just getting underway. The Harvard-affiliated Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) in Boston, Massachusetts is the first multidisciplinary institute dedicated entirely to studying how the placebo effect works. Preliminary findings indicate a connection between the most successful placebo treatments and endorphins… yet endorphins don’t fully explain all the positive results placebos achieve. The methods of placebo administration are every bit as important as the administration itself.
The placebo effect is branching out to non-medical areas, as well, where we see indications of new ways we can positively transform our lives through changing our beliefs. Placebos have proven effective for helping students perform better on tests. Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan devised an experiment by which 40 undergraduate students were given a 20 question general knowledge test, with each question having four possible answers. Subjects were informed that before each question was asked, the correct answer would be momentarily flashed upon the screen too quickly for them to consciously recognize, but they were assured that the correct answer would register subconsciously in their brains. What was actually being flashed momentarily had nothing at all to do with the correct answers, but was instead a bit of gibberish consisting of random strings of letters. Participants who believed they’d subliminally received the correct answers and were given verbal guidance by experimenters, “On some level, you already know the answer,” scored significantly higher than participants in the control group who received no similar verbal guidance nor subliminal gibberish flashing on their computer screens. Clearly the best possible mantra or affirmation to tell oneself before approaching any test is, “you know this.”
The video version of this blog post can be found on YouTube at: http://youtu.be/uniypKdnEUs
Cynthia Sue Larson is the best-selling author of six books, including Quantum Jumps, Reality Shifts, Aura Advantage, High Energy Money, and Karen Kimball and the Dream Weaver’s Web, and the Aura Healing Meditations CD. Cynthia has a degree in Physics from UC Berkeley, and she discusses consciousness and quantum physics on numerous shows including the History Channel, Coast to Coast AM, and BBC. You can subscribe to Cynthia’s free monthly ezine at: http://www.RealityShifters.com