The placebo effect: it is what it is

8 01 2011

I’ll confess, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts, fortune tellers or horoscopes. If someone tells me they have a “feeling in their waters”, I tell them to go and see a doctor. And I’m a huge cynic when it comes to homeopathy and so-called “alternative therapies”.

A couple of months ago I read with great interest, not to mention abject horror, the story of 15-year old Crohn’s disease sufferer Rhys Morgan who suffered cyber abuse at the hands of an American nutjob trying to convince people to drink a “natural remedy” called “Miracle Mineral Solution”. MMS, which claimed to treat not only Crohn’s disease, but also cancers, TB, malaria, hepatitis and even HIV infection, apparently has to be taken with citric acid (sold on the MMS website for $3.28 + P&P but is really nothing more than lemon juice). Problem is, MMS + lemon juice = industrial-strength bleach.

The product’s “creator”, a Mr. Jim Humble (who, incidentally has now started his own church), openly tells people to “never stop taking MMS”. And if you start to feel sick? Well “that’s a good indication” because it means that MMS is doing its job, killing bacteria, “eating viruses” (tch!) and ridding the body of toxins! But let me stress again – IT’S INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH BLEACH.

The United States Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada and the UK Food Standards Agency all have health warnings on their websites about the serious dangers of taking MMS. In short, it’s very bad for you and has no proven beneficial effects on any of the diseases it claims to cure (though it will give you a very clean toilet). But what struck me as most bizarre, were the number of people slating the poor lad Rhys Morgan. Rhys, a newly-diagnosed Crohn’s sufferer who had simply joined an online Crohn’s disease support forum looking for advice, help and to meet people who might know what he was going through, was thrown out of the Crohn’s forum for responding in a “threatening way” to advocates of MMS, and he continues to receive hate mail to this day from people who swear blind that MMS is curing their illness (even though they feel sick all the time).

Clearly, this is an extreme case of brainwashing. MMS does have very negative side effects and it is physically damaging to health. But having heard about MMS and Rhys’ story, I’m now seeing miracle stories about miracle cures all over the place. It’s like how you never really notice VW Beetles on the roads until you own one, and suddenly they’re everywhere.

One product that came to my attention recently, via a spam-tweet, was “Pregnancy Miracle TM”, a “holistic and Chinese System for Getting Pregnant and Having Healthy Children”. Holistic *and* Chinese! Wow! Sadly, and very predictably, the website Pregnancy Miracle dot com [link removed because it apparently caused suspension of my WordPress account!] is more than 11,000 words of vague nonsense and gibberish that tells you nothing about how this supposed “miracle cure” works, and plays on the emotions of very vulnerable child-desperate women to get them to part with $39 for an eBook that will impart to them a mixture of common sense health advice and yet more unscientific claptrap.

Don’t get me wrong, with the very obvious exception of MMS, which clearly is very bad for you (I’m not sure you can argue that drinking bleach will ever cure AIDS), there is something to be said for the placebo effect. Scientific evidence exists to say that a sugar pill can work just as well as a headache tablet and the power of mind over matter is a real and helpful thing.  Heck, sugar pills can work just well as a headache pill when the patient *knows* it’s a sugar pill. As the saying goes, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, and if you’ve tried it and it works, then bully for you. My problem with alternative therapies is the pseudo-scientific made-up BS sales pitch that seems to accompany these products and treatments. My latest bugbear is the magnetic bracelet.

Like many people, my New Year’s resolution almost every year is to lose a bit of weight and get fitter. This year I’ve already signed up for a gym membership and as soon as all of the Christmas chocolates and cakes are gone, I promise I’ll start eating more healthily. But one thing I won’t be doing is reaching for my credit card and parting with £29.99 for a Power Balance magnetic wrist band.

Magnetic bracelets are nothing new. They’ve been around as an alternative therapy for years, coming and going in faddy waves and claiming to cure arthritic pain, motion sickness and now, claiming to give you incredible balance, flexibility and increased sporting performance. And how? By a “miracle” (there’s that word again!) hologram that contains an “embedded frequency” that is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”.

Before we all exclaim a collective ”WTF?!”, let it be stressed that yes, actually, these magnetic bracelets have indeed been shown to reduce arthritic pain, motion sickness and improve sporting performance, but what there is absolutely no scientific evidence for is how they do it. It’s a placebo. It doesn’t actually *do* anything, but because we think it does, it works.  As I’ve already said, if it works for you then great – one less expense for the NHS, but personally, I think it is dangerous and highly unethical for the manufacturers of these brands and products to try and blind us with pseudoscience in an effort to make us believe their unfounded claims.

England cricketer Stuart Broad recently tweeted, “Powerband bracelet proved to be ‘no better for you than a rubber band.’ They had me and 2 and a half million others sold on their story!” At least one professional sportsperson has seen the light! The Power Balance website boasts of celebrity advocates including the Beckhams, Justin Timberlake and  Kate Middleton, but the fact of the matter is, wearing an elastic band around your wrist (and, if you so desire, sticking a ”shiny” to the back of your hand to mimic the hologram effect) will improve your fitness and balance in just the same way if you believe that it will. Incidentally, taking regular aerobic exercise and stretching will also have the same effect.

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16 01 2011
Back online! « Lisa A. Martin

[…] suspension apparently came about as a result of my last post containing a link to Pregnancy Miracle dot com, a domain name that has been blacklisted by […]

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