An article in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that the only medical symptom that can be treated by placebos is pain. A placebo is a treatment that is offered to a person as a cure for a certain symptom, with no benefit other than the psychological effect it may have if a patient believes that the treatment will work; for example, giving sugar pills to a patient and telling him or her that they will cure cancer.
Henry Beecher was a young doctor in the Massachusetts General Hospital medical division at the Anzio Beachhead during World War II. He was assigned to give anaesthesia to wounded soldiers before surgery. The invasion was such a horrible disaster that thousands of young American soldiers were wounded and they were brought in so fast to the makeshift hospital, and with such horrible wounds, that Dr. Beecher quickly ran out of anaesthesia. He injected salt water into the buttocks of soldiers as he prepared them for surgery. The soldiers tolerated these major surgeries as if they had been given the most effective anaesthetics that are used today.
After the war, he returned to the Massachusetts General Hospital and wrote articles and lectured about the use of placebos to treat patients. He was appointed chairman of the department of Anaesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School. He lectured that more than 35 percent of all patients will respond to placebos because they are placebo reactors. Should a doctor give a treatment that doesn’t work to a patient on the hope that the patient is a placebo reactor?
In this report, two professors at the University of Copenhagen reviewed the world’s literature on the use of placebos. They conclude that the only medical condition helped by placebo is pain. Placebo therapy is does not cure any disease by getting a sick person to believe that he will be cured.
NEJM May 24, 2001.