A placebo is defined as an inactive substance resembling a medication, given for
psychological effect or as a control in evaluating a medicine believed to be
active. However the placebo only fits this description under the restraints it
has been given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which refers to the
placebo as an investigational new drug. In actuality, up until the present much
of medicine was built on placebos. “Not very long ago, the rituals and
symbols of healing constituted the bulk of the physicians armamentarium. In the
early decades of the 20th century, most of the medication that doctors carried
in their little black bags and kept in their office cabinets had little or no
pharmacological value against the maladies for which they were prescribed.

Nevertheless, their use in the appropriate clinical context was no doubt
frequently beneficial.”(Brown, 6) Even though placebos have been proven
effective medicine time and time again the FDA remains reluctant to approve them
for anything more than clinical research. The FDA stands on their disapproval of
placebos as medicine on the basis that patients are to be given the best
treatment available. Who is to say that a placebo is not as, if not more
effective than the accepted remedy? There are an endless variety of cases that
have proven placebos inconclusively effective. Among the most famous of these
cases is the story of “Mr. Wright,” who was found to have cancer and
in 1957 was given only days to live. Hospitalized in Long Beach, California,
with tumors the size of oranges, he heard that scientists had discovered a horse
serum, Krebiozen, that appeared to be effective against cancer. After Wright
begged to receive the serum, his physician, Dr. Philip West, finally agreed and
gave wright the injection on a Friday afternoon, not telling Wright that
injection consisted only of water. The following Monday the doctor was
astonished to find that the patient’s tumors were gone. Dr. West later wrote the
tumors, ” had melted like snowballs on a hot stove.” At Tulane

University, Dr. Eileen Palace has been using a placebo to restore sexual arousal
in women who say they are nonorgasmic. The women are hooked up to a biofeedback
machine that they are told measures their vaginal blood flow, an index of
arousal. Then they are shown sexual stimuli that would arouse most women. The
experiment then tricks the women by sending a false feedback signal, within 30
seconds, that their vaginal blood flow has increased. Almost immediately after
they become genuinely aroused. In another case a study was carried out in Japan
on 13 people that were extremely allergic to poison ivy. Each individual was
rubbed on one arm with a harmless leaf and told that it was poison ivy and then
rubbed on the opposite arm with poison ivy and told that it was harmless. All
thirteen broke out in a rash where the harmless leaf had contacted their arm.

Only two reacted to the poison ivy leaves. (Blakeslee, 2) In yet another
example, patients with angina pectoris, chest pain, associated with heart
disease, have been shown to improve substantially following an operation that
involved nothing more than a simple skin incision. Angina also improved
following a type of artery surgery once thought to be effective but later found
to be ineffective. (Turner, 1) These are just a few of a great number of cases
that prove the effectiveness of placebos. How do placebos work? There are many
theories on how placebos work but really no definite answers. Many believe that
the response to placebos is one of conditioning. That is that the site of a
doctor, his white coat, the sterile smell, and a prescribed medication is
equated with being cured, and because we think that we will get better we do.

Some think that a placebo might reduce stress, allowing the body to regain some
natural optimum level of health. Others believe that special molecules in the
brain help carry out the placebo effect. A recent study found that stressed
animals could produce a valium like substance in their brain if they have some
control over the source of the stress. People must certainly share similar brain
chemistry. (Blakeslee, 3) In any case, do we have to know how a placebo works if
it is proven that it does work? There are certain birth control methods and
stress therapies that work effectively, without explanation and with FDA
approval. Many physicians discredit placebos because the feel that the use of a
placebo is lying to the patient. However it is impossible to prove that doctors
aren’t lying by putting their faith in accepted treatments because it is
impossible to prove that the treatment doesn’t rely, even in part, on a
placebo effect. It is inconsevable to the medical field that the treatment is
not 100% responsible for the cure. ” Nobody wants to own it. Even shamans
and witch doctors would be offended by the idea that their healing powers
depended on the placebo effect.”(Harvard college, 1) It is important to
understand that placebos are not a cure and that they cannot cure. The patient’s
belief in the value of the treatment makes the treatment work. There is no
question that the placebo effect is very real. Between 30 and 80% of various
studies participants have shown positive reactions to placebos. They clearly
reduce the feelings of pain and can work against depression and insomnia among
ailments. Many experimental fields such as acupuncture and chiropractic rely on
a placebo effect, admittedly or not. It is also very conceivable to me that the
only reason that placebos are not effective against many terminal illnesses,
such as cancer and AIDs, is because of the way the diseases are presented to us,
as incurable. Who could ever believe that you could be cured if you where told
that you where going to die. I believe that placebos could make great strides in
medicine if they where FDA approved for medicinal use. They would cut down on
treatment costs and the use of needless medications. The use of placebos could
be extremely effective in situations to reduce stress and as a remedy for small
ailments such as colds. There are many instances where medications such as
antibiotics are prescribed only to ease the patient’s mind. A common saying is
that if you treat a cold it will last a week, but if you leave it alone it will
be gone in seven days. As a parting thought I invite you to think about all the
times that a mother has made a child’s pains go away just by kissing it better.


Blakeslee, Sandra. “Placebo.” New York Times. 13, October 1998:

Article 2. A collection of stories documenting the success of the placebo effect
in medicine. This article was an excellent source of validation to the healing
effects of placebos. Brown, A. Walter. “Harnessing the Placebo

Effect.” Hospital Practice. 1999: 5-6. A collection of theories on how the
placebo effect works along with a description of where the placebo effect could
be incorporated into modern medicine and how the placebo made up much of early
medicine. I found this to be an excellent source to find quotes. Kwik, Jessica.
“Placebo Power as Good Medicine.” Imprint Online: Science. 23, January

1998: volume 20, number 23. A collection of statistics and doctors descriptions
of placebo treatment success rates. This was an excellent source of statistical
facts along with various views to support the placebo effect. Turner, A. Judith.
“Placebo Effects on Pain.” Healthline Magazine. April 1995: volume 14,
number 4. A collection of documented cases of successful treatments
incorporating the placebo effect along with theories on how the placebo works.

This article gives great insight into how placebos can be incorporated into
modern medicine along with a brief overview of how the placebo is thought to
work. President and fellows of Harvard College. “The Pleasing

Placebo.” Mind/Brain/Behavior. 1995: A collection on theories of how the
placebo effect works and in contrast how it could fail. A great source of quotes
concerning why the placebo is denied in the medical field and how the placebo