Power In Placebos
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
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
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.,
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
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
"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
"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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Walter A Brown, MD
Brown University/Tufts University School of Medicine
Tor Wager, PhD