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Thursday, January 3, 2008

With great enthusiasm and conviction: The placebo effect

His late mother-in-law, Sarah, had been a concert pianist who developed painful arthritis in her old age and found her doctors to be generally useless when it came to satisfactory pain control. "So, being an independent, take-charge individual, she subscribed to Prevention magazine, in order to learn more about the multiple remedies suggested in each month's issue" for symptoms like hers.

Predictably, every couple of months Sarah would make a triumphant phone call and announce with "great enthusiasm and conviction" that a new food or supplement or capsule had practically cured her arthritis. Unfortunately, each miracle cure was regularly replaced by a different one, in a cycle her son-in-law ruefully breaks down for detailed analysis in his book, Snake Oil Science.

He makes it clear exactly how the natural history of most painful conditions conspires with the placebo effect to make almost any treatment appear to work, so long as the recipient hopes and believes it will.

Placebos sometimes work. Their effects are characteristically mild and temporary. They are more or less indistinguishable from the effects of most alternative treatments, as Dr. Bausell describes.

R. Barker Bausell's advice: If you're bent on trying alternative medicine, find an appealing therapy and an enthusiastic practitioner, then plunge in wholeheartedly to maximize the placebo effect and prolong its duration.

Browse for related stories in the index at the very bottom of this page, or read a contrary story about the value of traditional non-scientific methods.

Thanks to Dr. Abigail Zuger for the source story in the Dec. 25 issue of the New York Times.

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