of the Placebo Effect
The placebo effect,
the improvement in the condition of a patient that cannot be attributed to the applied
treatment, is a widely accepted phenomenon. “Placebo
treatments—interventions with no active drug ingredients—can stimulate real
physiological responses in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue,
and even some symptoms of Parkinson’s”, writes journalist Cara Feinberg
in Harvard Magazine.
The understanding of
this fact, although has had encouraging progresses, is still in its infancy.
Depending on the beliefs of the patients and the loquacity of the healers, recoveries
are often attributed to metaphysical interventions such as saints’ miracles,
aura cleanses, prana tunings or qi energy adjustments. The mysterious placebo
effect achievements have soared both the expectations of millions of sick
people and the interest of the academic world. There are some interesting
developments in the knowledge of its workings as well as in the biology associated
Although in the
medical sense the word 'placebo', a substance prescribed more to please
patients than to cure them, came into use only in the eighteenth century, we
can metaphorically think that Jesus Christ himself was the discoverer of the
phenomenon; he called it 'faith'. According to the Gospels, the Lord used to
say to the sick after their recovery: "Your faith has healed you".
(Such a phrase, of course, was never repeated after resurrections since those
who are already dead cannot display any faith). Researchers are now certain, though, that the patients’ faith, be it in the doctor, the prescription,
the healer, the concoction or the applied procedure, is a determining factor in
the success of their recuperation.
Science, as we well
know, does not swallow metaphysical stuff and a number of recent studies,
though with no definitive conclusions as yet, is pointing to physiological
explanations for some reliefs, particularly in pain management. Let's look at
two cases, both related to acupuncture, the practice most studied in the
parallels between alternative medicine and conventional approaches.
Not everyone reacts
in the same way to acupuncture procedures, either in their traditional mode
with qi meridians and special needles, or in the sham versions ‘developed’ for
comparative purposes. Furthermore, many people do not experience any reaction
at all to any of the two approaches.
The Program in
Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PIPS), sponsored by several
Harvard-affiliated hospitals, is a multidisciplinary institute dedicated solely
to placebo studies. One of PIPS studies has shown that patients with a specific
variation of a gene associated with the production of dopamine, one of the most
important chemicals in our body, were more prone to respond positively to
needle pinches. In addition to establishing degrees of receptivity to placebos,
this finding, if confirmed, will allow pharmaceutical companies the selection for
drug testing of placebo-indifferent 'human' guinea pigs. Such possibility
should substantially reduce both testing times and development costs.
One area in which acupuncture
seems to have been particularly effective is in pain management. In another
experiment, reported in Scientific American, researchers caused measurable
artificial discomfort in laboratory mice, and then tried to heal the induced
pain with needles.
decreased pain in rodents (i.e., pinches improved their tolerance to it) and,
unexpectedly, the emission of adenosine, a compound that has been recognized as
useful in the reduction of the pain. increased abundantly. The application of adenosine
injections to the lab mice led to similar results. In other words, the
punctures did their work, but the relief was due to the increase in blood adenosine
concentration, and not because of the acupuncture treatment.
Both findings are
quite important. Everybody hopes many other discoveries will arrive soon and
that, even not knowing the details about how they are working, the placebo
effect investigations will continue producing direct and indirect benefits for
Faith certainly cannot move mountains. However, blind confidence in healing
treatments, either medical or magical, indeed ‘re-moves’ many ailments, even if
we lack the knowledge on know how they do their work... Or, at the very least
and good enough, they do decrease the unbearable pain that many illnesses involve,
an extremely important accomplishment by itself.
Author of 'INNER HARMONY through MINDFULNESS MEDITATION'
Atlanta, September 2, 2016