Over the centuries, medical prescriptions included animal dung, lizard blood, frog sperm, crab eyes, and countless potentially deadly substances. Patients actually got well on these and hundreds of other useless and dangerous substances. The reason patients recovered was because what they were actually being administered was hope and an expectation of getting well.
Surprisingly often, when the patient trusts the physician and the physician believes in the treatment, the patient develops trust in the treatment and recovers. This trust in the healer and in the treatment may be the most powerful active ingredient.
A patient with intractable asthma was treated with what his physician believed to be a powerful new experimental asthma medication. Lung function improved and the patient was enjoying significant symptom relief. The patient’s improvement was more dramatic than even the pharmaceutical company had predicted, so the physician began to wonder if possibly the unexpectedly positive results could at least in part be due to the patient’s own strong belief in the efficacy of the new drug. To test his hypothesis, at the next appointment, he treated the patient with a placebo instead of the new experimental drug. In a follow-up office appointment, the patient complained that the drug had stopped working, and all his symptoms had returned. This proved to the doctor that it was the new experimental drug and not the patient’s belief in it that had catalyzed the healing.
However, the doctor’s hypothesis was later disproved when he contacted the pharmaceutical company to request more of this new wonder drug. At that point, the company informed the physician that what he had believed was a new experimental wonder drug was actually a placebo.
There are countless placebo case studies and placebo-controlled trials reported on in depth in the book In Your Own Hands, along with all the references.