Cartoon by Mike Bannon at Mordant Orange
So you go to your doctor with some painful or otherwise bothersome medical problem, and after perhaps running some tests and/or poking around, the doc nods and mmmh-hmmms a lot and finally takes out the prescription pad.
"Take this twice a day for the next two weeks. It may help your condition--and it certainly won't hurt."
Would you be upset if you later found out that the "medicine" you were taking (and paying for) had no active ingredients that could do anything at all for your ailment?
Because it turns out that 45% of doctors in a recent placebo survey copped to prescribing medication to patients as a placebo. Only 4% of them told the patient that's what they were doing--which kind of make sense. "Take this, it won't help you at all unless you think it will" is somehow not nearly as persuasive.
But is it ethical? It's sort of misleading. But it's not an easy question to answer, because, well, placebos work for a lot of people. That's why they have to have control groups whenever they test a new medication. If you tell people you're giving them something that may help their arthritis or their hemorrhoids or their ear-wax build-up or whatever, a good portion of them will obediently get better even if the medicine itself is useless. The freaky thing about giving people placebos it that it actually results in physical changes in the brain that make people feel better.
Can the placebo effect actually cause you to lose weight? Kateio at Sister Skinny recently alerted us to the hotel maids study. This was a weird one: maids who were told that their hard physical jobs actually burned enough calories to meet the surgeon general's definition of an "active lifestyle" started losing weight and lowering their blood pressure. Those who were told nothing... didn't. Can abstract knowledge actually burn calories? Wouldn't that be weird if it did?
(Note: I'm still a bit skeptical of this study, perhaps because it just seems so amazing. But I wonder: if you were an overweight maid who thought you weren't getting any exercise, and then you suddenly found out you were getting plenty, would that change your attitude about the food you were eating? Might that not be an incentive to make some dietary changes?)
Still, if it turns out to be true, the study has amazing implications. You can think calories away! I'm going along with Katieo on this one, and am going to repeat to myself every day: "blogging burns 300 calories an hour." Or hell, make it 700!
So back to the question we started with. Given that placebos can actually trick some people into feeling better, would you be annoyed to find out you're been given one by your doctor?
Unfortunately, as I mentioned before (in a post about placebo doping in sports), I'm just not a very good placebo person. Being a cranky pessimist, I usually expect things NOT to work. So if I shelled out money on a fake drug that didn't help because my doctor thought she could trick me into feeling better, I might be less than grateful.
On the other hand, I've been doing better with knee pain since I started wrapping ice packs around my knees. Is it the ice? Or is it my tiny little suggestible brain believing the ice is helping? Who knows? (It's the ice, I swear).
How about you guys--would you whomp that lying doctor upside the head with your big bottle of fake pills? Or would you give that doctor a hearty thanks for creative thinking about pain management?