Placebos Essay

This essay has a total of 1379 words and 8 pages.


Why we need placebos

English/ science

By Jj walliss

A placebo is defined as an inactive substance resembling a medication, given for
psychological effect or as a control in evaluating a medicine believed to be active.
However the placebo only fits this description under the restraints it has been given by
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which refers to the placebo as an investigational
new drug. In actuality, up until the present much of medicine was built on placebos.

"Not very long ago, the rituals and symbols of healing constituted the bulk of the
physicians armamentarium. In the early decades of the 20th century, most of the
medication that doctors carried in their little black bags and kept in their office
cabinets had little or no pharmacological value against the maladies for which they were
prescribed. Nevertheless, their use in the appropriate clinical context was no doubt
frequently beneficial."(Brown, 6)

Even though placebos have been proven effective medicine time and time again the FDA
remains reluctant to approve them for anything more than clinical research. The FDA
stands on their disapproval of placebos as medicine on the basis that patients are to be
given the best treatment available. Who is to say that a placebo is not as, if not more
effective than the accepted remedy?

There are an endless variety of cases that have proven placebos inconclusively effective.
Among the most famous of these cases is the story of "Mr. Wright," who was found to have
cancer and in 1957 was given only days to live. Hospitalized in Long Beach, California,
with tumors the size of oranges, he heard that scientists had discovered a horse serum,
Krebiozen, that appeared to be effective against cancer. After Wright begged to receive
the serum, his physician, Dr. Philip West, finally agreed and gave wright the injection on
a Friday afternoon, not telling Wright that injection consisted only of water. The
following Monday the doctor was astonished to find that the patient's tumors were gone.
Dr. West later wrote the tumors, " had melted like snowballs on a hot stove." At Tulane
University, Dr. Eileen Palace has been using a placebo to restore sexual arousal in women
who say they are nonorgasmic. The women are hooked up to a biofeedback machine that they
are told measures their vaginal blood flow, an index of arousal. Then they are shown
sexual stimuli that would arouse most women. The experiment then tricks the women by
sending a false feedback signal, within 30 seconds, that their vaginal blood flow has
increased. Almost immediately after they become genuinely aroused. In another case a
study was carried out in Japan on 13 people that were extremely allergic to poison ivy.
Each individual was rubbed on one arm with a harmless leaf and told

that it was poison ivy and then rubbed on the opposite arm with poison ivy and told that
it was harmless. All thirteen broke out in a rash where the harmless leaf had contacted
their arm. Only two reacted to the poison ivy leaves. (Blakeslee, 2) In yet another
example, patients with angina pectoris, chest pain, associated with heart disease, have
been shown to improve substantially following an operation that involved nothing more than
a simple skin incision. Angina also improved following a type of artery surgery once
thought to be effective but later found to be ineffective. (Turner, 1) These are just a
few of a great number of cases that prove the effectiveness of placebos.

How do placebos work? There are many theories on how placebos work but really no definite
answers. Many believe that the response to placebos is one of conditioning. That is that
the site of a doctor, his white coat, the sterile smell, and a prescribed medication is
equated with being cured, and because we think that we will get better we do. Some think
that a placebo might reduce stress, allowing the body to regain some natural optimum level
of health. Others believe that special molecules in the brain help carry out the placebo
effect. A recent study found that stressed animals could produce a valium like substance
in their brain if they have some control over the source of the stress. People must
certainly share similar brain chemistry. (Blakeslee, 3) In any case, do we have to

know how a placebo works if it is proven that it does work? There are certain birth
control methods and stress therapies that work effectively, without explanation and with
FDA approval.

Many physicians discredit placebos because the feel that the use of a placebo is lying to
the patient. However it is impossible to prove that doctors aren't lying by putting their
faith in accepted treatments because it is impossible to prove that the treatment
doesn’t rely, even in part, on a placebo effect. It is inconsevable to the medical
field that the treatment is not 100% responsible for the cure. " Nobody wants to own it.
Even shamans and witch doctors would be offended by the idea that their healing powers
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