Faith Healing, Placebo Effects, and Imagery

When I was in my second year of practice, working in the county medical clinic, a middle-aged woman named Edna came in for a checkup. She was a likable, talkative person who said she had come because “the doctors worry me so and tell me I better keep an eye on my blood pressure.” Her chart revealed that she had been diagnosed with a precancerous condition of the uterine cervix more than two years earlier, and the gynecologists she had seen wanted to take biopsies and remove the affected areas. Edna had turned this recommendation down four times, and each successive note put in her chart by her gynecologic consultants sounded more and more frustrated and concerned. There was mention of possible psychopathology and “irrational beliefs about healing.”

When I asked Edna why she was unnecessarily risking her life, she smiled broadly and told me that “Jesus will heal me, and I don’t need surgery.” She said she prayed and talked to Jesus every day, and he promised he would heal her if she put her trust in him.

I asked her how she communicated with Jesus, and she told me, “I see him when I pray, and he talks to me just like we’re talking now.” I again explained the medical concerns that I and the other doctors shared about her. Then I told her I had no doubt that Jesus could heal her if he wanted to but that I wondered how long it would take. She was a bit surprised when I asked her if she would be willing to get in touch with him and ask him if he’d agree to heal her in the next six weeks.

She closed her eyes, and after a few minutes smiled and nodded her head. “Yes, he says he can and will heal me in six weeks.” She agreed to have another pelvic exam and Pap smear at the end of six weeks and also agreed to have a cone biopsy performed if the Pap smear was still abnormal. “But it won’t be,” she said. “I know that now.” And she left, smiling more widely than ever. I was glad to have obtained a commitment form her to have a biopsy if her prayer proved ineffective.

Six weeks later she returned. Her cervix looked normal on examination. Three days later her Pap smear report came back — perfectly normal. Edna’s story certainly does not mean that you can forego Pap smears or that you must believe in Jesus. It does, however, point to the potent healing effects of faith and belief.

The Power of Positive Expectant Faith

Like most physicians, I have many times witnessed the placebo effect on many occasions. It wasn’t uncommon at the county hospital where I trained to give water injections to overly dramatic patients complaining of pain, while telling them it was a powerful pain medication. Often a shot of placebo solution relieved pain as effectively as if it had been morphine. At the time, we thought that this kind of response to placebos could tell us if the pain was “real” or not. As we’ll see, the issue is not that simple.

I noticed with interest how many people began to feel better the instant they took the first dose of a medication known to take hours, days, or even weeks to begin working pharmacologically — not to mention how many times people began to feel better as soon as I wrote their prescriptions! No one knows exactly how these effects come about, but they are everyday occurrences in medicine. It has been determined that the placebo effect is responsible for over half the action of some of our most powerful and trusted drugs and much of the action of any therapy — alternative or conventional, medical, surgical, or psychological.

Belief can not only draw positive reactions from neutral substances, it can even cause people to react in opposition to the pharmacologic effects of a medication. A physician reported giving syrup of ipecac to two patients with severe nausea and vomiting. Ipecac is a very powerful emetic (it induces vomiting) and is usually given to people who have swallowed poison in an effort to clear their stomachs. In this case, the patients were told that the ipecac was a very strong medicine that would soothe their stomachs and stop their vomiting — and it did.

The power of expectation and faith affects even surgical outcomes. In the 1950s there was a good deal of enthusiasm in the medical community about an operation that was quite successful in relieving chest pain (angina pectoris) and improving heart function in men with blockage in their coronary arteries. The operation involved making an incision next to the breastbone and tying off a relatively superficial artery, which theoretically shunted more blood to the arteries supplying the heart. Most of the patients who underwent this procedure improved dramatically, experiencing both relief of pain and an improvement in heart function. Then a controlled study was done on the operation. A matched group of men with similar angina were brought to the operating room, they were anesthetized, and a surgical incision was made. Half of these men, however, were sewn up again without having anything else done. After surgery, they experienced the same dramatic relief of anginal pain and enjoyed the same improvement in heart muscle functioning as the men who underwent the real operation.

To call an effect “placebo” does not mean that the patient’s response stems from the patient’s belief in the therapy rather than from the therapy itself. What is important about the placebo response is that it demonstrates beyond a doubt that thoughts can trigger the body’s self-healing abilities.

Somehow, under certain conditions, our intentions, desires, and beliefs in recovery are translated into physical healing. What are the conditions that allow this to happen? If we can be “tricked” into healing, why couldn’t we learn to heal “on purpose”?

From “Guided Imagery for Self-Healing“, Martin L. Rossman, MD

Martin L. Rossman MD Written by Martin L. Rossman MD

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