The human body and mind are a complex pair of machines, and while no-one really wants to admit this (particularly if they work in medicine or alternative therapies) – there’s a lot we really don’t understand about how they co-operate. One of the areas that we really don’t have a clue about is how much of a role the mind plays in healing and disease management.
During the First World War, when medical staff ran short of painkillers they began to adapt a new method of pain relief. They would offer wounded soldiers “experimental painkillers” which weren’t in fact anything more than sugar, on the basis that it was possible a soldier’s belief in the effects might be able to help them manage their pain better than no treatment at all. It worked, at least partly – while some soldiers felt no benefits, a reasonable percentage of them felt better.
And so the Placebo effect began to be documented, not discovered exactly as it’s been the basis of almost all spiritual and rudimentary healing techniques since the dawn of time, but formalized none the less.
In fact studies have shown that in many fields of medicine 35% or more of patients suffering from chronic conditions can have some or all of their symptoms alleviated through the use of placebos.
It’s even been shown, by a study at Harvard University in 2010, that even if the patient knows they are receiving a placebo – the effect remains as strong. Their study on sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome was surprising in two ways – one, despite the patient’s understanding that they were receiving a clearly marked placebo and being told that they were being treated with something that had no active ingredients whatsoever – many of them improved. And two, the placebo beat the actual treatment for IBS in terms of performance, that’s right not only did it make people feel better but it actually worked better than the real medicine.
This is wonderful news for Mr. Chen because it means he can actually tell people our sugar treatment (specially tuned as if by magic using his Chinese xylophone equivalent) is a placebo and it will still work.
Hang on a second? I thought you said it would help 70% of people, and yet the number in this article is 35%. There’s no contradiction, the 35% relates to people suffering from chronic (persistent) conditions – most diseases, conditions etc. are temporary in nature. When you get the flu – you either get better within a week or so, or you die. When you strain a muscle it normally gets better with the passage of time. In fact this is true of around 90% of life’s little problems – if you just leave them alone, they’ll get better anyway.
For Mr. Chen this is a great thing, because not only will he help some of those people suffering from chronic conditions – but many people who would have gotten better anyway will attribute their recovery to his cure. Two for the price of one as it were.
Why are we examining the placebo effect now? Because it’s very important in terms of TCM, and its effectiveness or lack thereof, and there will be more on this tomorrow.