I love the word “placebo.” Not only does it translate into “I will please” but it is the fall guy in medical study after medical study. When something is so prevalent and aims to please, why don’t we welcome it in instead of showing it the door?
For one thing, it has a dubious origin even historically. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a placebo was a “Yes man,” a sycophant who tagged along for the ride hoping to get something from just being there. Even before that, placebo was the label for a hanger-on at funerals, someone who came for the buffet afterward even if he didn’t know the deceased.
So the meanings that we bring to the word were largely negative and a bit comic from the get-go. Even the term “sugar pill” sounds like a put-down.
But what if we were to take a second look? What if it’s not “It’s just all in your mind,” but “Wow, it’s all in your mind!”
The power of suggestion is known not only to help people feel better, but to create measurable, positive changes. Burn patients, for instance, have been shown to benefit from hypnosis.
In an article in Burns: journal of the International Society for Burn Injuries, published on Pubmed.org October 30, 2009 ahead of its print publication, the conclusion was that “A pain protocol including hypnosis reduced pain intensity, improved opioid efficiency, reduced anxiety, improved wound outcome while reducing costs.”
The study, titled “Impact of a pain protocol including hypnosis in major burns,” was carried out in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In another study, the conclusion was that “ Procedural hypnosis including empathic attention reduces pain, anxiety, and medication use. Conversely, empathic approaches without hypnosis that provide an external focus of attention and do not enhance patients’ self-coping can result in more adverse events. These findings should have major implications in the education of procedural personnel.”
In the title, these were referred to as “when being nice does not suffice.”
The rest of the title of this study, published in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology June 19, 2008: “Beneficial effects of hypnosis and adverse effects of empathic attention during percutaneous tumor treatment.” Hypnosis worked with empathy, but empathy alone didn’t.
So here’s a thought: What if a sugar pill could do the same thing as hypnosis? One question that we might ask enroute is this: If a placebo creates not only a feeling of well-being but a measurable change, is it then still a placebo? Or does it lose its pejorative label because it works– “I will please” with a better connotation?
Designing a study would be a challenge. One possible method might be to test a group that is given an inert substance—the sugar pill– against a group that is not given anything.
The study ought to test for a measurable difference. Blood pressure readings might meet the criteria, and no one would be admininstered the real thing, which would be blood pressure medication.
The next step: Because self-hypnosis has been shown to facilitate changes in how the body responds, perhaps administering a sugar pill might have a similar outcome if the patient is given a hypnotic suggestion that it will help.
If blood pressure actually can be lowered by using a sugar pill and a suggestion, it is possible that we would be studying the efficacy of hypnosis and not that of the sugar pill. But then administer the sugar pill without further hypnotic suggestion. What if the sugar pill continued to create a positive effect on blood pressure readings, while at the same time reducing medication costs?
It’s possible that some elements of this have been examined already, Pavlov’s dogs leading the pack. But if it hasn’t been, is someone game to try?