Placebos — The Promise and the Problem

Can a Placebo Cure My Pain?

Anything that seems like a viable treatment or a drug, but doesn’t actually contain or offer specific therapeutic benefit, can work as a placebo. Interestingly, though, there can still be measureable effects.

WebMD shares that research on placebos has focused on the mind/body connection. When told a fake “drug” was a stimulant, study participants exhibited faster pulse rates, higher blood pressure, and faster reactions. When told the same fake “drug” was a sleep aid, pulse, blood pressure, and reaction time were all lowered. In another study, participants found measurable relief from depression, sleep disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, menopause, and pain — even when participants were told they were taking placebos.

On the other hand, an asthma study found no measurable benefits from a placebo inhaler, yet the participants reported that the “fake” inhaler worked as well as the real one delivering medication. The fake one worked better, they reported, than sitting and doing nothing.

So what’s happening here? Expectations drive changes in body chemistry. Even how strongly one expects drives changes — real changes, like increasing endorphin production for decreased pain. Negative expectations are also realized, in side effects like headaches, nausea, or drowsiness.

What creates this phenomenon? Cell biologist Bruce Lipton calls it the “Biology of Perception.”

Our cells are living organisms, with their own digestive, respiration, and elimination systems. They thrive by sensing, through the cell membrane, which things they allow to flow in or out. Decades ago, Bell Laboratories ran an experiment providing oxygen and removing waste from cells, and decided eventually to terminate it because apparently they could keep these cells alive and healthy forever.

In a larger organism, though, like the trillions of cells in the human body, the cells no longer get information about the environment directly, since the body boundaries are far beyond the perimeter of the cell membrane. So, the cells rely on information sent them. The brain decides, and electro-chemical signals wash over the cells, telling them about the outer environment, and the cells respond accordingly.

Except there’s a problem — our perceptions can be mistaken.

Every time you thought you saw something but didn’t, thought you heard something, felt something, but didn’t, your brain nonetheless sent a signal through the central nervous system, and committed to being part of the group, your cells believed it.

Something made you start, and your stomach lurched, your pulse quickened, your blood pressure spiked, your muscles tensed — all because your cells reacted as if the danger were real. Like it or not, you now have unneeded adrenaline in your system. Likewise with disease, injury, and pain — your cells respond not to reality, but to the brain’s perception. And if that perception is exaggerated, the brain creates unnecessary pain, setting in motion physical processes that themselves can become sources of reactions that create more dysfunction and pain.

Deepak Chopra tells of the patient whose cancer had spread to the bone, and hence this person was in great pain. After work at the Chopra center, the pain went away — but the oncologist told her not to worry, that this was all “in your mind,” and that the pain would return! And with that fresh perception, indeed it did return.

Another gentleman was told by his doctor that he was severely anemic. The doctor asked all sorts of questions about what he felt and experienced — do you feel faint, do you wake up with shortness of breath, on and on, all answered negatively. The doctor expressed amazement. And that night, for the first time ever, instead of feeling fine, this man woke up suffering from shortness of breath.

A famous 1957 study tells the story of Mr. Wright, suffering from advanced lymphosarcoma, his body filled with tumors and excess fluid. He convinced his doctor, Dr. West, to allow an experimental drug, Krebiozen, even though Wright was too sick to be allowed in the drug trial. Ten days later, he left the hospital, cancer free. However, two months later the scientific literature reported the trial showed Krebiozen was ineffective. Wright read the report, became depressed, and his cancer returned.

At this point Dr. West, wanting to help, chose subterfuge, and told Wright he had a new batch of highly concentrated, ultra-pure Krebiozen he could give him. What he really gave him was an injection of distilled water. Wright’s tumors and excess fluid again disappeared, and he lived disease-free for two months — until the AMA declared the drug useless. Wright’s cancer returned, and he died two days later.

So did these patients’ perceptions heal them? Maybe. Were the doctors right, that the conditions would return, and the temporary relief coincidental? Also possible. That’s the trouble with simply giving placebos as treatment — we don’t actually know what will happen. Oncologists will tell you, for example, that while they can share statistics, every cancer is different, and every cancer in a different body is different. Our bodies and how we experience things are also all different — depending on our perceptions and what we send our cells. There’s no reliable mechanism for placebo delivery.

Then there’s the ethics problem. If doctors lie to their patients, is that OK? Patients would then question anything doctors said, never knowing which was true and which was invented. And what would separate the practice of medicine from the sale of snake oil? We do have reliably practiced medicine, and this would work effectively end it. So there’s no Placebo Medicine specialty.

This is also a problem for holistic approaches. Science works by isolating and testing variables — and holistic practice does exactly the opposite from isolation, presenting a real problem for studying it. Anecdotal evidence is often taken as “proof” — not a day goes by someone doesn’t post the cure for cancer on Facebook (always a different one, and often with the alarmist warning that big Pharma, doctors, and/or the government are suppressing it).

At the same time, we can’t dismiss results as “just” the Placebo Effect. If people are cured or healed, it’s not “just” anything — it’s positive and demonstrable results. So how do we sort out what works and what’s wishful thinking and someone’s perception?

We’ll explore that in the next article. Stay tuned!

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Tim Emerson 
Kwan Yin Healing

Tim Emerson, a 30-year veteran of energy healing, founded Kwan Yin Healing following his own recovery from degenerative disc disease to help others find results in a confusing array of available approaches. He stresses a comprehensive, demonstrable, proven approach centered on each individual.