Letter: The placebo effect

Submitted by AWL on 18 December, 2019 - 10:51

Reading Richard Shield’s letter (Solidarity 527, bit.ly/rs-hom), I have no doubt that taking his homeopathic remedy really is helping him.

Taking such remedies can lead to a measurable, and clinically significant change in someone’s symptoms — symptoms like vomiting, symptoms like intractable pain that has not responded to morphine. And unlike morphine these remedies have no side effects at all.

Everything that we experience in our brains is connected to our bodies. Our brains thin at the base of the skull and are continuous with the thick spinal cord that runs down our spine and spreads its tendrils into every part of our bodies. As well as nerve impulses, the brain has important glands that pump out chemical messages through our blood stream. It affects and regulates every part of our bodies.

The brain is the organ, even more than the heart that we cannot survive without. Brain dead is really dead. There’s no ghost in the machine. It’s all the same thing.

How our brains can affect our bodies is beautifully demonstrated by the effect of homeopathy. It is an established fact that homeopathy is a placebo. Randomised control trials differentiate between active medications and the placebo effect. They are the way to decide whether or not the medicine itself has an effect once the effect of the placebo is controlled for.

In a double-blind trial, neither the administrator nor the participants know who is taking the medicine, and who is taking the placebo. The effect of the medicine must have a significantly bigger effect than the placebo to be deemed effective.

Yet researchers have found that the effect of the placebo itself is significant. Some studies even tell participants that they are getting placebos, and still the results are a significant improvement in their symptoms.

How well the placebo works is bound up with how it is given – the rapport between doctor and patient.

For some symptoms where conventional medicines have very little impact such as chronic pain, this is a significant development. One study included participants who had been wheelchair bound due to pain prior to the successful administration of the placebo. They had real pain, and real relief.

But placebos cannot treat everything, and in some situations the decision to take placebos can lead to death. Many of my patients have refused conventional medicine for potentially curable cancer in favour of treatments that do not work.

Unlike homeopathy where the remedies are inert, some “treatments” can also do harm — such as a low fat low sugar diet for cancer patients, which leads to higher rates of weight loss. Many of these patients feel better initially, because of the placebo effect. By the time they can see the increasing size of tumours on their CT scans it is too late.

There’s growing scientific evidence that using placebos may be beneficial for some illnesses. But the use of placebos must still be based on rational science if patients are to maximise their health.

Angela Driver, Lewisham

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