Placebos have graduated into surgical procedures.
A placebo is a pill or substance without an active medical ingredient. The patient believes that he is receiving a drug. Physicians have found that the patient, unaware of the deception, may respond as if an actual drug was administered.
Five years ago psychologist Dr. Irving Kirsch, Associate Director of Harvard Medical School’s Placebo Studies program, reported that antidepressants are no more effective than a placebo in treating depression. On CBS 60 Minutes two years ago, Dr. Kirsch reported that some placebo knee surgeries are as successful as actual knee surgeries. A “placebo surgery” is surgery that is faked by the surgeon. The patient believes that he had an actual surgery.
In this 60 Minutes report Kirsch said “placebos are great for treating a number of disorders: irritable bowel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, ulcers, Parkinson’s disease. Even traumatic knee pain. In this clinical trial some patients with osteoarthritis underwent knee surgery. While others had their knees merely opened and then sewn right back up. And here’s what happened. In terms of walking and climbing, the people who got the placebo actually did better than the people who got the real surgery. And that lasted for a year. At two years after surgery, there was no difference at all between the real surgery and the sham surgery.”
Recently, the reputable The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published the results of another medical trial that also shows similar results between actual surgery and placebo or fake surgery. The report is titled “Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy versus Sham Surgery for a Degenerative Meniscal Tear.”
Although researchers and physicians have varying views on why the placebo effect works, most agree that it has something to do with the patient’s belief in the medicine or procedure. As more patient and health care providers come to see that thought and faith affect the body, it could serve as a springboard to a deeper study of the mental and spiritual nature of health.
At the same time, research into the impact spirituality, prayer, and religious practices have on health is on the rise.
The public these days is looking for health solutions in a wider variety of approaches – in some cases integrating alternatives with allopathic medicine and in others moving completely to alternatives such as naturopathy or oriental medicine. Some of the alternative approaches have underpinnings that are tied to theological and/or religious belief systems and practices. Hospitals and clinics are adding “integrative medicine centers” at a rapid rate because the demand for such approaches is high. And there is a well documented yearning among patients and care providers for an individual’s religious or spiritual beliefs to be included in their treatment.
Health seeker, health researcher, and New Hampshire native Mary Baker Eddy experimented with homeopathy and placebos. Homeopathy stops short of administering placebos outright; it attenuates or dilutes substances supposed to have medicinal value. Mrs. Eddy explains her experiment: “We have attenuated a grain of aconite until it was no longer aconite, then dropped into a tumblerful of water a single drop of this harmless solution, and administering one teaspoonful of this water at intervals of half an hour have cured the incipient stage of fever.” She continues, “The highest attenuation we ever attained was to leave the drug out of the question, using only the sugar of milk; and with this original dose we cured an inveterate case of dropsy. After these experiments you cannot be surprised that we resigned the imaginary medicine altogether, and honestly employed Mind [God] as the only curative Principle.” (Christian Healing, p. 13; this case of dropsy or edema is further described in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, page 156.)
This experience and others like it helped Mrs. Eddy to reach her conclusion that cures are not produced by drugs or chemistry. The effects of drugs, she taught, are produced by the faith placed in them by doctors, nurses, patients, families, and the public. And she discovered, as Jesus had demonstrated some 2,000 years earlier, that prayer is a powerful healing medicine.
I have found in my own experience that it is possible for a knee injury to be healed without resorting either to medical intervention or to placebos. I had severely injured a knee by running up and down a New Hampshire mountain with my daughter. I couldn’t walk for a few days, but through prayer the knee injury was healed, and when it returned a few years ago in a milder fashion, it was healed again through prayer so that I am able to walk, hike, and bike freely. My complete account of this experience can be read in the 2012 Christian Science Journal.
© 2014 Christian Science Committee on Publication for New Hampshire