News Flash > Alternative Health


Power In Placebos

Reported February 01, 2010

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Theyíre called placebos, sugar pills, shams, shots of saline and fake creams. But some argue even though their ingredients may be bogus, the reactions are real. Almost half of all doctors regularly give their patients placebos. Are they con artists or do they know the most effective medicine could be in your head? Here is the controversy surrounding prescribing placebos.

It could happen to anyone, at any time. It happened to Jonathan Overman late at night. A car careened into his lane.

"I flipped 300 yards. I kept flipping," Overman told Ivanhoe.

"The roof came down over my face and peeled it off."

He flat lined six times. The impact so powerful, his eyes popped out of their sockets, and thatís just the beginning.

"My neck was broken, four vertebrae were fractured, and I was paralyzed for 31-2 months, 13 holes in my lungs, three holes in my heart," Overman recalled.

After 13 surgeries and hundreds of medications, he was back on his feet, and Jonathan says placebos helped him get there.

"Itís completely all belief," Overman said. "Belief changes and heals."

A study out of the National Institutes of Health reports half of doctors prescribe placebos. The most common: painkillers, followed by vitamins, antibiotics and sedatives.

"It really is about the power of the mind and how we are actually able to change not only how we behave, but our bodies," Jon-Kar Zubeita, M.D., Ph.D.,
Professor of Psychiatry and Radiology at the University of Michigan, said.

"Somehow, this thought process of anticipation does something to the brain that is the same as when you get medication," Walter Brown, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University and Tufts University School of Medicine, said.



The NIH study reveals 62 percent of doctors find placebos ethically acceptable. Fifty percent of doctors report using placebos several times a month. Columbia University psychologist Tor Wager says keeping the truth from patients about placebos often leads to deception.

"There are serious ethical issues of giving someone a treatment when itís not," Dr. Wager told Ivanhoe.

The American Medical Association recommends doctors only use placebos if the patient is informed and consents. But can a placebo work if the patient knows itís no more than this? Dr. Walter Brown, who teaches at both Brown and Tufts Universities, says yes.

"I could prescribe an anti-hypertension medication for you, and we may end up doing that, but a lot of people with your high blood pressure get better by just taking pills like this. These pills have no active ingredient in them, but they do get certain people better. We donít know how they work," Dr. Brown said.

Antidepressants recently made headlines after a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that taking antidepressants may be only a little more effective than a sugar pill for most people.

"They get as better with a placebo treatment as they do an anti-depressant," Dr. Brown explained.

In fact, antidepressants were only more effective for the patients with very severe depression, but with 164 million prescriptions dispensed each year, is this a case against antidepressants or a case for the power of suggestion?

"When there is expectation of recovery, that expectation changes brain physiology," Dr. Zubeita said.

"I donít think believing can cure," Richard Sloan, Ph.D. Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, said. "I donít think there is any really good evidence that believing can cure."

But for Jonathan, as his body lay broken, belief kept him going.

"Your belief heals you from within," Overman said. "The human body is something that scientists will never figure out."

Now, this once paralyzed man stands and sings about what he survived, hoping others become believers, too.

Walter A Brown, MD
Brown University/Tufts University School of Medicine

Tor Wager, PhD
Columbia University