Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Imagine an idealistic pill.
A seemingly ‘miraculous’ medicine or treatment.
It has the potential to effectively and safely treat headaches, pain, colds, chronic diseases, to substitute surgery, resolve physical injuries and even reverse cancer.
All these benefits in just one small, feather-light pill.
You may wonder, what’s inside such a useful and powerful treatment?
Is it a new medical breakthrough that enables one pill to treat so many different conditions?
Is it some ancient esoteric or shamanistic all-powerful herb?
What’s inside it?
The truth might be very disappointing, since in reality… There is nothing inside it.
Imagine people being able to recover without receiving actual medical treatment, just by thinking that they are receiving treatment.
In a generic scenario, a doctor gives a patient a pill and tells them that it will cure their disease or rid them of pain. The patient subsequently takes the pill and surprisingly recovers. Without knowing that the pill was filled with something insignificant like sugar, water or cornstarch.
Did the patient recover just because they expected to recover? These are all unsolved mysteries about the Placebo Effect. Buckle your seat belts, because we are going to be exploring the truth about this universal medical phenomenon and uncover some shocking, yet eye-opening facts!
First things first, what is a “placebo?” The word “placebo” means “I shall please” in Latin, yet in the medical world, it is used to refer to a substance that has no therapeutic or physiological effect on the body. For example, using a capsule filled with nothing but corn starch will act as a placebo when given to a patient to treat a stomach ache; the cornstarch itself has no physiological pain-reducing effect, so when used instead of real treatment, it is referred to as the “placebo.”
The Placebo Effect, however, refers to a scenario in which an individual experiences legitimate relief from pain and/or healing or improvement from a disease or injury when taking nothing but a placebo. Oftentimes, the individual is not aware of receiving a placebo and their false assumption of being treated with real medication is what causes this improvement or healing. This leads us to believe that it is the individual’s sole expectation of improvement and recovery that aids these very improvements and recovery in the first place.
Despite the perceived peculiarity of using fake medications to treat potentially life-threatening diseases, medical research has shown astounding findings that may change the way we view reality.
The Incredible History of the Placebo Effect
One of the very first known instances of the Placebo Effect dates back to the eighteenth century. A Yale-educated physician, Elisha Perkins, invented specific metal wands, which he claimed could cure virtually any illness or disease if pressed against the affected area for twenty minutes. He claimed that they were manufactured from a special metal alloy that had healing properties. The rods resulted in somewhat of a craze. They seemed to work extremely effectively, in an almost too-good-to-be-true manner: patients with chronic pain and injuries experienced relief from their symptoms once and for all after treatment with these mysterious metal wands. Even George Washington is believed to have purchased a pair.
However, a British doctor, John Haygarth, studied the wands and concluded that they were manufactured using nothing but brass and stainless steel, which are certainly not the materials that can cure diseases and pains. He concluded that Perkins’ wands had no effect on the body whatsoever.
Yet despite Perkins’ revealed dishonesty, virtually all of his patients were cured despite being treated with mere brass and stainless steel wands. If these wands were nothing but a mundane metal object, then why were they so effective in treating a wide variety of diseases and conditions? Did the patients experience healing because they believed that they would recover and because they expected to have their symptoms and illnesses reversed?
Fast forward to World War II. Henry K. Beecher, an anaesthesiologist, is facing a tough situation and a health care worker’s worst nightmare. One of his patients is in need of an urgent life-saving heart surgery, yet there is absolutely no morphine left. At the time, operating without administering morphine was considered to be lethal for the patient. The patient is whining from the excruciating pain. In desperate need to save the patient’s life, Beecher injects him with plain water, yet tells him that he injected morphine. The patient’s cries slow down and he enters a calmer state. Soon enough, he becomes more relaxed, his pain seemingly gone. The subsequent surgery was a success and the patient’s life was saved.
In both of these historical scenarios, patients recovered and experienced a relief from pain upon believing that they are receiving real medicine and real, effective treatment. The very act of expecting to recover is what seems to have aided their recovery.
This is the fundamental aspect of the Placebo Effect, yet its scope goes farther than that.
The Placebo Effect and Cancer
Astonishingly, one of the most famous medical cases of the Placebo Effect involved the remission of an advanced-stage cancer patient.
Dr. Bruno Klopfer’s 1957 case study tells the experiences of Mr. Wright, a patient with advanced lymphosarcoma. All previous treatments have failed; his cancer progressed to a severe stage at which his chest, armpits, neck, abdomen, and groin contained orange-sized tumours, his liver and spleen were abnormally enlarged, and his chest was filling with fluid everyday, which needed to be drained out in order for him to breathe.
Mr. Wright’s doctor, Dr. West, believed that he had less than a week left to live.
However, Mr. Wright was reportedly desperate to live and was actively pursuing Dr. West to be treated with Krebiozen, a new promising cancer drug, which Mr. Wright believed would cure him. Dr. West initially objected to Mr. Wright’s requests, claiming that his patient was simply too ill to receive the drug (which was used for patients with less severe forms of cancer). Yet after Mr. Wright’s constant ‘pestering,’ the reluctant doctor eventually did inject his severely ill patient with Krebiozen. The administration of the drug happened on Friday, but Dr. West still did not expect his patient to live through the weekend.
But on the following Monday, to Dr. West’s astonishment and bewilderment, he found Mr. Wright walking out of bed. His tumours “melted like snowballs on a hot stove” (Klopfer, 1957) and have halved in size. Just ten days after the injection of Krebiozen, Mr. Wright left the hospital, cancer-free.
For the next two months, Mr. Wright lived in this healthy, cancer-free state, praising Krebiozen as a miracle cancer-curing drug. But scientific literature soon began releasing data that Krebiozen may not be as effective as promised. Mr. Wright trusted what he read and upon learning of the uncovered ineffectiveness of the drug that seemingly cured him, fell into a depression.
His cancer returned.
This time, however, Dr. West was determined to save his patient. He told Mr. Wright that the initial supplies of Krebiozen were damaged during shipping, thus reducing their effectiveness, but claimed that he had a newer batch of the drug, in a much more concentrated and “ultra-pure” form. (Rankin, 4) He injected Mr. Wright again, and just like before, Mr. Wright’s cancer disappeared.
Yet this time was different because Dr. West explicitly lied about him having Krebizion and in reality, injected Mr. Wright with distilled water (a placebo).
Once his tumours melted away the second time and the fluid in his chest disappeared, Mr. Wright was once again cancer-free for the next two months. Subsequently, the American Medical Association declared that a nationwide medical study proved Krebiozen to be completely useless. Mr. Wright lost all of his faith in this treatment, his cancer returned again and he passed away just two days later. (Klopfer, 1957)
Since Krebiozen was ultimately declared as completely ineffective, it is reasonable to infer that the very first dose that Mr. Wright received likely had no effect on his body, yet his belief in and expectation of recovery and healing was present. And it seems to be the only thing that caused his remission both times. Notice that every time Mr. Wright lost faith in recovery (when Krebiozen was declared as less effective, and eventually worthless), his cancer returned. And he passed away soon after he lost all faith in recovery.
Therefore, the presence (or absence) of faith may be the key driving force of the Placebo Effect.
About the author:
I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!
Works cited in part I & part II:
Kaptchuk, Ted, Science Translational Medicine (2014)
Klopfer, Bruno, “Psychological Variables in Human Cancer,” Journal of Projective Techniques 21, no. 4 (December 1957): 331-40. Mora-Ripoll R (2010). Therapeutic value of laughter in medicine. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 16(6): 56–64. Moseley, J. Bruce et al., “A Controlled Trial of Arthroscopic Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Knee,” New England Journal of Medicine 347 (July 11, 2002): 81-88. Rankin, Lissa. Mind Over Medicine. May, 2013.
Science Translational Medicine, 2014.
The Power of the Placebo, BBC-Horizon, 2014.
“The Power of the Placebo Effect.” Harvard Health, 9 Aug. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-power-of-the-placebo-effect.
Watts, Geoff 2005, Elisha Perkins and his ‘medical tractors’.
Wechsler, Michael E. et al., “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma,” New England Journal of Medicine 365 (July 14, 2011): 119-26.