“Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


In a recent study, 61.3% of the public and 20.2% of professionals believe that a miracle can a save person in a persistent vegetative state and 57.4% of the public said divine intervention can save a person when doctors think treatment just isn’t going to work, compared with just 19.5% of trauma professionals according to Lenworth Jacobs, M.D., of Hartford Hospital and colleagues. (Jacobs LM et al. “Trauma Death: Views of the Public and Trauma Professionals on Death and Dying From Injuries.” Arch Surg. 2008; 143(8): 730-735).

For the study, Jacobs and his colleagues conducted a random-digit-dialing telephone survey of 1,006 Americans over the age of 18 (margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points). They also surveyed a convenience sample of medical personnel involved in trauma care, including medical directors of trauma units, trauma nurses, and emergency services personnel.

Well, the power of belief is truly amazing:

In a study of 256 patients with chronic arm pain (rating of at least 3 on a 10-point pain scale), 133 were treated with sugar pills (one a day for 8 weeks) and the other with fake acupuncture (twice a week for 6 weeks).

In the study, 25% of the acupuncture group experienced side effects including 19 who felt pain; 31% of the pill group experienced dizziness, restlessness, nausea, dry mouth and fatigue. After 10 weeks, the pill group reported significant decreases in pain (average 1.50 points) and after 8 weeks those receiving fake acupuncture reported a drop of 2.64 points.

The fake acupuncture had greater effects than the placebo pill on self-reported pain (Kaptchuk, et al., 2006. Sham device v inter pill: Randomised controlled trial of two placebo treatments. British Medical Journal).

To investigate the limits of placebo, Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center divided 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) into two groups: one received no treatment and the other was given dummy pills to take twice a day. The second group was told by the doctors that they would be taking “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS-symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes“.

The results, published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, showed that the placebo pills were more effective at relieving symptoms compared with doing nothing at all (Kaptchuk TJ, Friedlander E, Kelley JM, Sanchez MN, Kokkotou E, et al. 2010 Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015591). These results suggest that placebos work even when people know they are taking a placebo.

If You Believe You Are Being Prayed for Are You Healthier?

I’ve become a bit more interested in the association between spirituality and religiosity with health (Giesser, B., Coleman, L., Fisher, S., Guttry, M., Herlihy, E., Nonoguch, S., Nowack, D., Roberts, C. & Nowack, K. (2005). Living Well: An integrative approach to wellness with multiple sclerosis. Paper presented at Annual Conference of The American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM) Board/American Society of Neurorehabilitation (ASNR), Chicago, Illinois. UCLA Department of Neurology and National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Southern California Chapter). I’ve wondered about the relationship between being prayed for and recovery from illness.

Recently, a study including 1,802 patients in six hospitals by Benson and his colleagues (Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW Jr, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, Hibberd PL. (2006). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. 151(4):934-42) failed to show any impact of remote prayer although there has been some criticism of the study design (e.g., 45% of those invited to participate elected not to be part of the study, intercessors were not allowed to pray their own prayers and it was impossible to limit prayers for those in the “control” group). One interesting finding was that those who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse than the other two groups.

Maybe a bit of deception or ignorance is the best medicine after all….Be well….