Thoughts That Hurt to Think #050 – The placebo effect is real!

We’ve all heard stories of someone who was cured of cancer with a sugar pill, or who was told by doctors they would never walk again only to leave the hospital on their own two feet. There may be a wide range of such stories, and an even wider range of beliefs around such possibilities; but I think we can all find some common ground on this issue. Extensive studies have been done using placebos for one purpose or another, and many such studies show that they work surprisedly well at treating or curing some ailments.

Sometimes they even work better than the medicine they’re being tested against, with less side effects. But that’s not the point here, and I have too much to say around that point to digress for once.


Or, you’re welcome.

Whichever applies.

Placebos are often referred to as ‘sugar pills’, like I did earlier. They’re much more than that, though. Placebos aren’t always things you swallow, unless we’re talking metaphorically. That’s why the phenomenon associated with these startling results is referred to as ‘The Placebo Effect’. I could give you a candy bar and say it will lower your blood pressure, even if it probably won’t. But if I had on a lab coat and a stethoscope, it just might. The control factor here isn’t the candy bar, it’s the appearance and mannerisms of the person administering it. In other words, the placebo effect can be attributed to whatever causes it.

By the way, Hippocrates placed an awful lot of importance on how a physician dresses and behaves. If you didn’t read ‘The Father of Modern Medicine was a Quack’ last week, you might want to do that now. I really think it’s pretty noteworthy that the most superficial aspect of Hippocrates’ practice is one of the few things he came up with that wouldn’t be laughed out of a hospital today. In fact, pretty much every doctor out there makes a big deal about presentation and performance. It’s almost as if those white coats and stethoscopes are curing more diseases than the pills they’re handing out.

Common practices change fairly often in the medical field; it’s pretty safe to say that people in a hundred years will be shocked at how many pills we developed in our time, and how much money went into that development. One of the few things that hasn’t changed is the belief that doctors should dress and act a certain way. As much as they might laugh at the very practices they would have subscribed to if they had been born a hundred years earlier, it’s a rare modern doctor that doesn’t make it a point to dress the part.

As well they should. That may be what’s curing some of their patients, after all. I say ‘some’ because most of the things people go to see their doctor for will go away on their own. Rather than let it do just that, doctors frequently prescribe antibiotics to the point where minor ailments learn to combat them. What starts out as a bug becomes a superbug when it survives a round or two of antibiotic treatment, and then it’s a race to see who can develop the right lethal formula first. They often prescribe antidepressants before diet or exercise, two things sorely lacking in the lives of most depressed people. And pain pills…well, that’s such a big subject you can look forward to a blog just about that.

None of this is to say that antibiotics and antidepressants don’t have some real and valid applications. The problem is, they’re overprescribed. People with minor ailments take the antibiotics for a few days, and stop taking them when they start to feel better. Most of us don’t understand that the whole prescription has to be taken for them to work right, or that knocking off halfway through is a great way to create a superbug. And so many antidepressants are prescribed to people who don’t actually need them that they tend to get flushed down the toilet when the patient stops feeling depressed. That has led to notable amounts of these medications in our tap water, here in America, since water filtration systems weren’t made to filter out these particular substances.

It’s natural for a person to feel down sometimes. Many of us would argue that having emotional low points is an important part of personal development, and that being a little bummed out when something shitty happens is completely natural. But enough of us rush to the doctor when we don’t want to feel what we are feeling, and don’t get put through a program that might enable us to deal with such feelings for the rest of our lives; we get handed a prescription, and flush it when we feel better.

People with real and true chemical imbalances make up a very small percentage of the folks taking these drugs, just like very few of the folks taking antibiotics really need them. Yet this is the thrust of modern medicine, to the point where new ailments are being made up on a regular basis so that more medicine of this nature can be developed. The longterm impact of messing around with patients on a chemical level won’t be known until some time has passed, but it’s highly unlikely people will be popping pills with this kind of regularity in a hundred years.

We went from banishing evil spirits to measuring humors to bleeding people with leeches to popping pills like they’re going out of style because that’s exactly what medicine does. It goes out of style, only to be replaced with something else that works slightly better in some cases while mysteriously killing as many people as it saves. Yet in all this, one common thread can be found: doctors throughout the ages have been relying on the human body to heal itself in most cases, counting on the confidence their patients had in them in some cases, and writing off the rest as freak accidents or medical miracles.

And they’ve almost all dressed professionally.

You’d think there would be a lot of research being done on how we can trigger the placebo effect in patients without placing them in facilities that disrupt the natural healing process or giving them drugs that release chemicals which already exist in the human body. I mean, what reason would the medical field have for pursuing any other result than a patient that can learn to take care of themselves in virtually every instance? If even one study shows that a sugar pill works as well in one patient as the actual medicine being tested, shouldn’t we be figuring out how to trigger this response in everyone?

Is it really all about the money? This kind of solution would bring about a global health crisis, in that more people would be healthy than ever. One or two trips to a doctor trained in teaching you to activate your own placebo effect, and each of us would be equipped to handle almost anything. The rest of the medical profession would just be sitting around, waiting for violence to break out or accidents to happen.

Unless we could learn to heal that ourselves, too. Then almost all the money would be removed from medicine, and folks would be going into the field to actually help people. Maybe they’d go back to teaching each other for free, so student loans wouldn’t be such a big pain.

Speaking of pain…

I hinted at it earlier, and don’t think I plan to leave you hanging. Pain management has become big business in America the last few years, and they just keep making stronger stuff. The latest killer of both pain and people is supposedly fifty to a hundred times stronger than heroin, and the average prescription lasts just long enough to hook most patients. Many of them go out looking for something to scratch that itch, and become heroin users in pretty short order.

We’ll talk about that next week, and we’ll call it…

Doctors are prescribing addiction!

Then we’ll lay off the medical field for awhile, so they don’t start to think they’re the only thought that hurts to think that I like to think about. There’s so much more, after all; and I love writing about them every week. I hope you love reading about them, because they’re going to keep on coming.

I hope you loved the post, and that you come back next week!

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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