The Power Within

I often wonder why it is that the power of the placebo is so maligned? Or worse still, just completely ignored. I’ve heard people say the word ‘placebo’ as if they have something nasty in their mouth. Spitting their words as if it’s not real or has no right to exist. But this strikes me a strange thing. To malign the power we all have within our own minds to affect our bodies. Bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s because we are afraid of what we don’t understand.

Or perhaps it’s because we’d rather someone else be responsible for our healing.

Or maybe it’s because to acknowledge and utilise that power we all have would be to unsettle the practice of medicine as we know it in the western world.

Or maybe it’s for some other reason altogether.

But at the risk of sounding too religious, how much more could we support our own healing if we made use of this God given gift?

In 2002 there was a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. One hundred and eighty people suffering osteo-arthritis of the knee. In other words, their knees were stuffed. Painful, inflamed, not working too well. Wear and tear after years of use and misuse. And each of these 180 people were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments. The first group had surgery with debridement. Scraping out the dead tissue inside the knee. The second group had surgery with lavage. Washing out of the knee joint. And the third group. Well they got the sham surgery. Simply a small incision and nothing else. Both the researchers and the participants were completely unaware of the group they were in. And the results were startling. Because the sham surgery worked as well as the real surgery.

Two explanations were offered. That improvements were gained because the arthritis would have healed anyway given time. But really? I’ve always believed it just gets worse. Or that the improvements were a direct effect of the placebo, the belief and expectation that healing would occur.

The conclusion of the study… that health-care researchers (and I would add doctors and patients too) should not underestimate the power of the placebo effect.

If we are this powerful, I can only wonder what is possible…


Just as an antibiotic drug may stop an infection or surgery may eliminate a malignancy, so the mind – your mind – has the capacity to treat or even cure many of your serious physical and emotional complaints.

Dr Herbert Benson, Harvard Medical School

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