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Friday, December 9, 2011

Magic is for fairy tales: A useful placebo

Michael Spencer's story:
Three years ago, a week before Thanksgiving, while I was sitting in my office, my chest began to throb. It was a diffuse pain, but pain nonetheless. I am a middle-aged man with the usual amount of stress (too much) and I handle it in the usual way (denial). My cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, and I exercise regularly and try to eat sensibly. Still, I have read many obituaries of "healthy" men my age who ignored chest pain. So, somewhat sheepishly, I called my doctor and explained the situation, and he told me to come right over.

He conducted a thorough examination, and then we talked. He told me I was fine, that Thanksgiving is often a tense time, and that I should relax. My pain suddenly disappeared. I have written frequently of my belief that magic is for fairy tales and science is for humans. But something about that process soothed me. Of course, it was a relief to know that I wasn't sick. But could words really banish a pain I had struggled with for hours?

After I got home, I realized that I had been given a placebo. Not purposefully, perhaps, but it had the same effect. My doctor told me that I was fine, and that made my pain go away. It also eased my anxiety at least as effectively as if I had swallowed a pill. My doctor takes an extremely science-based approach to his work. That's what makes him so good at his job. But that afternoon we engaged in exactly the type of ritual that, according to Harvard Medical School Professor Ted Kaptchuk, will have to play a critical role in the future of American health care. And, at least in this instance, it would have been hard to argue that it didn't work.

Thanks to Michael Spencer, from whose article in Dec. 12 issue of the The New Yorker this was reprinted.

1 comment:

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