All I want for Christmas is to go about my day pain-free,” writes one blogger.” “All I want for Christmas is the gift of good health,” types another. Search for these words on Google and you’ll find a common theme.
However, there’s reason to believe that our hopes for less pain or better health may not lie in the realm of Christmas elves and Santa Clause, or be as unachievable as we may think.
Did you catch Sunday’s 60 Minutes – Mind over Medicine? Revolutionary results are being achieved as a result of placebo research. It’s not just about replacement sugar pills, but patients are now undergoing ‘pretend’ operations to fight disease and chronic pain, and the results are nothing short of remarkable.
We have in our minds, in our brains, the capacity to change the way we experience pain, to affect some of the illnesses that bring us in to see physicians”, explained Dr Irving Kirsch, head researcher of a team of geneticists at Harvard University, now doing groundbreaking research into the placebo effect. Science is taking the power of the mind and applying it to the world of modern medicine.
Aussie, Gary Wade, is living proof of the power of the placebo effect. Gary took part in an unprecedented trial led by Dr Damien Finiss at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital. He gave Gary two injections, at different times. One was a powerful local anaesthetic, the other a harmless saltwater solution. Neither doctor nor patient knew which needle was which at the time of administration.
Gary’s chronic back pain was reduced by up to 50% with the simple saltwater solution, a better result than with the anaesthetic. Almost three-quarters of participants in the trial had similar results.
Placebo research has moved beyond treating merely pain and depression. Kirsch was quoted in The Placebo Effect: A Conversation with Dr Irving Kirsch as saying “I’ve worked on studies comparing placebos and drugs in the treatment of insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, migraine, and osteoarthritis. Who knows what will come next?”
Observing the placebo effect, and clinically proving its existence, is a major medical milestone. But the basis of the placebo phenomenon remains a scientific mystery, although researchers are doggedly endeavouring to discover why a patient’s belief has such a deterministic influence on his or her response. Kirsch’s colleague, Dr Alex Cahana, suggests, “…we need a paradigm shift – a whole new way of thinking about health and healthcare. It has become clear that the narrow biomedical perspective that has predominated in medicine is not meeting the needs of patients. The best healthcare system would look nothing like what we have today”.
Surprisingly, this type of research is not entirely new.
A pioneer in the mind/health connection and founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, studied the placebo effect in the 1870s and came to similar conclusions. She wrote about the faith placed in drugs: by scientists developing the drug, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approving it, the advertisements promoting it, the doctors prescribing it and the patient taking it. She showed how our beliefs about the effectiveness of a drug can change the effect.
Mary Baker Eddy began with the premise of a patient’s spiritual nature, and through many years of experimentation and study she learned that our thinking is directly linked to our health and well-being. Basing her mental healing practice on a spiritual basis, as she realised Jesus had been doing, she explained that positive health outcomes were possible through a change of consciousness and were effective without drugs.
I’ve always been interested in the mental nature of wellbeing, and have seen many instances of health and harmony restored in just this way, including relief from toothache and headaches.
Some say that ‘Jesus is the Reason for the Season’. More and more people are beginning to realise that Jesus’ significance to the world is not just about the relevance of his relationship to God, his moral teachings, and a promise for future peace and happiness, but it’s also about his demonstrations of the positive effect of spirituality on health.
Here in Australia, placebo research and practice is blossoming, as 60 Minutes clearly illustrated. Despite an often sceptical medical establishment, any allopathic or alternative medical treatment that relieves pain and heals disease, although at this time inexplicable, most likely should be welcomed. My thanks go to those questioning long-held assumptions and bringing these discoveries into the public arena for discussion.