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All in your Head

Posted by bmagnus On November - 11 - 2009

Over the years, there has been a lot of controversy (and some research) into natural cures and alternative medicine. While some traditional remedies have made the jump into traditional medicine — moldy bread poultices have long since been replaced by antibiotics — most have not. Why? Because sadly, most alternative medicine works only because we want it to work: it’s called the placebo effect.

The placebo effect has been documented for centuries, and by the 18th century it was common for doctors to prescribe an inert “cure” for certain picky patients. This practice remained common until the 1960s. Studies such as Henry Beecher’s The Powerful Placebo (JAMA, 1955) estimate that depending several factors, the placebo effect occurs on average 35% of the time. Even a morning cup of coffee seems to have some placebo effect associated with it.

Modern medical research is careful to keep the placebo effect in mind when both developing and reviewing the results of studies. Since “just doing something” actually helps patients with many disorders — particularly pain and depression — it’s important to use placebos as a scientific control group. Without placebos, we don’t really know how well the real treatment actually works.

The truth is that some alternative medicines and treatments are effective and just currently lack studies to prove it. Some will never be proven due to a lack of money to construct good research. However, the majority of alternative medicines and treatments will never be proven because they don’t really work. There may indeed be flawed research that seems to support it, but these studies are either too small to matter, leave out important variables (like the diet pills that work “when coupled with diet and exercise”), or have other problems.

But let me leave you with someone whose research into the placebo effect in alternative medicine is much more amusing, Penn and Teller:

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