In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros

The Magical Solution to Illness

Only recently have we rediscovered the placebo, from the Latin, "I shall please." As a verb: "to play or sing placebo" meant "to flatter," or "be servile." As a noun, it originally signified a flatterer, sycophant, or parasite, one who told you only what you wanted to hear. Nowadays it describes sugar pills, colored water, or some other form of bogus medication, used by Doctors as a ploy to placate malingering or querulous patients — "something given more to please than to benefit" and as a control in experiments and surveys.

Placebos raise interesting questions, because they have actually benefited so many. Might one actually please oneself into good health? Can belief in a cure make one well? Could hope and comfort assist the healing process?

Such ideas run totally contrary to the logic of Western medicine and are generally dismissed out of hand by medical professionals and researchers. [Cross reference with "unorthodox"]

What they cannot explain, however, is the actual impact of the placebo effect. Though the medical establishment puts little store in it, they insist it be accounted for in all major research studies. All double blind studies for new drugs and medical devices must account for the placebo's influence, by including it in their procedures. The results are both unsettling and highly satisfying. Most medications are effective in only 35-40% of cases. Yet the placebo effect is statistically comparable to the drug itself.

As pointed out by Dr. Andrew Weill, the vast majority of sore throats are associated with viruses, not bacteria. Yet the most common remedy prescribed by physicians are antibiotics for sore throats of a viral origin. How could an antibiotic cure a viral sore throat? It can only be through the placebo response.

New research shows that belief in a dummy treatment leads to changes in brain chemistry, validating through PET scanners and MRIs that the placebo effect is not "all in patients' heads" but in their brains.

It may not be a panacea, but the placebo's impact is huge. It underscores the link between mind and body, the connections between practitioner and patient as well as the singular importance of the human spirit.

Placebo should not be confused with the Russian Spasibo, meaning, "Thank you." It would not be out of place, however, to express both our extreme gratitude and pleasure for the concept, or at the very least, just recognize it.