Rethinking Placebos

Placebo. I love the word; it comes from the Latin verb placere: to please, and in the first person future indicative –placebo– translates as ‘I will please’. Wonderful.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, probably since rereading a Dec. 31/14 article in Medscape entitled ‘Should Doctors Use More Placebos?’ The answer, of course, is ambiguous –no one seems to want to commit to the use of a technique favoured in the days when there were few other options; times when there were no antibiotics, no condition-specific medications –no detailed knowledge of the physiology of the body, let alone diseases. Those were times when naming the problem and being able to give a likely prognosis was an important part of Medicine. I suppose it still is. But the other, equally important component nowadays, of course, is solving the problem so named –solving, as well as hopefully curing it with specifically targeted medications or therapies.

Placebos have usually been construed as inert, essentially harmless substances with little or no known properties that might otherwise be helpful in restoring bodily health. No pharmacological effect… So why would anyone wish to use them anymore? Or do we?

In this informed era of medical ethics –and of course, social media- would it even be possible to use placebo treatment, except, maybe, in a study where a treatment is being compared to no -or likely ineffective- treatment (placebo treatment) and where the participants are unaware which substance they are receiving (so as not to bias the results) and have understood and accepted this? Not something likely to occur in the average visit to a doctor’s office for an illness.

And the ethics that need to be considered? Well, amongst others, the concept of autonomy –the right of an individual to make both their own treatment decision and an informed choice. And then, of course, there is the ethical requirement for Informed Consent. How can you give someone a treatment without telling her that you may well end up using something that is pharmacologically inert? A non-medication, as it were.

A placebo is usually a trick –you think you have been given something specifically designed to help; you take it on trust; you have faith in the doctor… If you found out that what you had been given –lied to about, in fact- was inert, wouldn’t that undermine your confidence, and especially your trust, in that doctor? Even if it worked? Or maybe especially if it worked –it would mean he thought your condition was more psychological than physiological –i.e. ‘all in your head’. Not very likely to foster a continuing relationship.

But what if the doctor told you he was going to use a placebo for your condition? Would it work if you knew? Well, here’s where it can get interesting; there is a difference between using a placebo and using the placebo effect: the approach to the patient matters as well as what is given to attack the problem. Such things as actually hearing the patient –listening to what they have to say- rather than immediately reaching for the prescription pad; being reassuring and sympathetic. Friendly. Understanding. The demeanour and hope with which any treatment is administered has been shown to effect the results –the art of Medicine.

But nowadays, we all know about this. The fact that there is some theatre to medicine, and a play of characters is not a secret –although I suspect that most of us prefer not to think about it when we ourselves have an illness. The play within the play…

It got me thinking about placebos in my specialty, though. Are there any placebos in gynaecology, for instance, and do we ever use them? We certainly use the placebo effect in obstetrics –we are constantly reassuring our patients about the never-ending and always-changing symptoms occasioned by their growing bodies. Most of them don’t need investigations or tests- nor do they need any specific medication -just an acknowledgment by the doctor that whatever the patient has noticed is not something to be worried about. It is not something malevolent, nor likely to affect the baby, but merely something that happens in pregnancy –part of the spectrum. Something to be expected. It’s a trust issue. That’s why they came to you after all.

And what about gynaecology? All medicine involves placebo effects –we’ve just discussed that- but what about placebos? Are we kidding ourselves to think that gyaecology is exempt from their use? I suppose it depends on how you define a placebo. As we’ve already seen, a placebo is classically defined as a substance that is not likely to have any measurable pharmacological effects and so is considered inert. But what about a substance that is not yet proven by scientists to have an effect –for example by well-designed studies that compare various treatments? Of course, it may simply be that no one has actually studied the substance so far; there are many complementary and alternative medicines that Western Medicine has not subjected to analysis. So their use by the doctor would not necessarily be as a therapy, but maybe as an acquiescence to a patient’s request, in the absence, perhaps, of any other recognized treatment options.

How about a substance that has some effects, and yet likely not enough, nor sufficiently consistently to be considered a mainstay treatment, but which might be sold, say, in a health food store? Some of the phytoestrogens found in materials like clover or soy have estrogenic effects, but may attach weakly or ineffectively to certain estrogen receptors -and in some organs but not others…

And then there are medications that are useful for other conditions –perhaps related, but not necessarily so- but are re-packaged for a new life. The use of ovulation inducers in infertility treatment, even when the patient is known to be ovulating –a just-in-case therapy. Or an antibiotic for a new-onset, ultrasound negative –but as yet undiagnosed- pelvic pain in a woman when she shows up in a busy emergency department. Maybe it’s an infection… Or vitamin pill use for the busy woman who doesn’t have time for a healthy diet every day. It can’t hurt and it may help… Surely these are placebos.

Or substances that have switched their roles over the years –were they inadvertent placebos that have been since promoted? Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) was once only considered a pain reliever and was used for menstrual cramps. It seemed to help patients cope with the period but this was assumed to be only because of the pain relief. So it was a placebo for coping, a therapy for pain. Then, because it was later discovered to be an anti-prostaglandin –which is a chemical mediator of inflammation and has a direct effect on the flow through blood vessels (and hence one cause for increased bleeding and cramping with periods because of dilated blood vessels in the area)- ASA, or at least more modern analogues of antiprostaglandins such as ibuprofen, was reassigned to a new function. A new, non-placebo job, as it were. So, although it did one job at first, was it an unsuspecting placebo that actually did two jobs? Is that a temporal placebo? An interesting philosophical conundrum –but I suspect I am stretching the concept beyond any useful application.

Maybe we’re looking at the whole idea of placebos the wrong way. In our data-glutted age where information is conflated with knowledge perhaps we need a concept that defies mere illumination and transcends erudition. Something that is so embedded in the weft of context that it disappears in the very act of searching for it –an unsolvable Where’s Waldo. Sometimes our need for elucidation of every aspect of the world we live in is self-defeating. Maybe –just maybe- we don’t need to know where the geese go when they disappear through clouds that gird the mountain tops. Just that they come back every year. ..Somehow.