Friday, September 24, 2010

The Placebo Effect is my favorite effect

These days, trust is something many of us have left behind.  People don't leave their bicycles unlocked, most of us look for fine print before we sign even the most benign contracts, and we take the claims printed on product packaging with a grain of salt, always.  This is because we are lied to, all the time, and we are used to it.  Dishonesty has a thousand different faces, and we've seen these faces on our newscasters, salespeople, politicians, spokespeople, mascots, CEOs, and Milla Jovovich.  Our guard stays up, because when there is money to be made, people say whatever it is they need to say to get some of that money.

Over time, as we've learned more about the way the human body works, this distrust has even spread to our medications and our folk remedies.  Even treatments that work like a charm are questioned.  Maybe they're not really working.  Maybe it's just the placebo effect.  

The placebo effect, if you don't know, is when there's some condition in the body, a treatment is given, and the body heals simply because of the belief that the treatment will help, even when the treatment is just a sugar pill, or a saline injection.  Pharmaceutical companies deal with the placebo effect regularly in their drug trials, where they'll only release some drugs if test subjects given the medicine actually get better than test subjects given only a sugar pill.

You'll hear the placebo effect mentioned once or twice when a form of alternative medicine is being debunked.  "Well, of course shaking a snake over your abdomen fixed your ulcer, but did it do better than the sugar pill?"  

Yes, the placebo effect is very handy when you're debunking bunk, and it's very handy when you're testing drugs, but I sometimes feel like I'm in the vast minority in thinking that we should take a closer look at it.

I mean, Asprin's great, and Amoxicillin is oh-so-delicious in its liquid form, but I could have swore that it's generally accepted (and backed by great body of evidence) that certain bodies, in certain instances, can heal themselves without medicine.  And not just drink-plenty-of-fluids healing, but quick, dramatic, medicine-style healing. 

Drugs often fool our bodies into doing things.  Make more of this hormone, create more of this neuropeptide, shut off these nerves real quick.  Well, it turns out that, some of the time, our bodies can be fooled the same way, just by what we believe.  Our brain is in charge of all of this, it can naturally do many of the things that the medicines can artificially do.  

So, why are we not using this?

Yeah, we don't want doctors handing out sugar pills to ill patients, but there has got to be a way to harness this facility.  We're a clever species, after all, and, just like we were told as children, we can do anything we put our minds to.  If I were to choose between filling my body with expensive and unpredictable chemicals to treat something and... well, not doing that, then I'd go with the second choice every time.

But modern medicine is not rushing to fund studies on this.  At least, not as quickly as it's rushing to fund the nice medicines that will be on the class-action lawsuit commercials a year from now, "If you've taken Yaz...." 

I guess this is why I'm not so ferociously against alternative medicines.  If people aren't going broke over it, and aren't making their conditions worse because of it (two things that do happen), then it seems that alternative medicine is a great way to employ the placebo effect.  I say this not with derision, but with cautious optimism.

As I've said before, I'm not a truth-purist, and when it comes to truth vs. practicality, the second one, in my mind, is sometimes more important.  

So, if your friend's homeopathic acid-reflux medication seems to work wonders, leave him/her to it.  The only thing is, you can't tell them the secret behind their remedy, because that will make it stop working.

Thanks for reading.

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