Blog | Friday, November 4, 2011

The mind's tremendous influence over the body

A 24-year-old female presents with several week history of progressive stomach pains, substernal chest discomfort, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, headache, insomnia, and growing lump sensation in her throat. Physical exam was essentially normal.

meditation by HaPe_Gera via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseCan this previously healthy female have suddenly developed reflux, globus, paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, brain tumor, and throat cancer with possible overlying thyroid disorder? Or perhaps has she contracted some other horrific mystery disease?

Maybe ...

But maybe none of the above ...

What if I told you she will be giving a doctoral dissertation for her Master's next week for which she is ill-prepared given a recent breakup with her boyfriend of five years and a growing distaste of her school classmates who have been less than supportive.

In other words, anxiety.

The point is that the mind has tremendous influence over the body and numerous physical maladies can be attributable to a patient's mental state. People can die of a broken heart or out of extreme fear. Stress can age the body dramatically (Look at a picture of a presidential candidate and then another after having served two terms as President of the United States).

A mind under stress can affect the body. Reassurance helps. Elimination of the stressor is even better. If the stresses can't just go away, development of strong coping mechanisms will do much to help. After that, there are prescription drugs that help, but have addictive potential as the anxious patient will tend to take a pill rather than dealing with and learning coping skills.

But here's where the power of the mind can be "manipulated" into helping rather than hurting the body.

In my last blog, I did ridicule therapeutic hands to manipulate human body energy as total bunk (or rather a 9-year-old girl did), but if a person truly believes that it does help, it probably can help some individuals just from the idea/belief/faith that it can.

Faith, trust, and sharing with another human being who lends a sympathetic ear is where questionable "medical" practices and homeopathy may provide benefit, not because such quackery directly helps the individual, but more because the individual believes it can help.

I can totally make up a quack treatment like placing an ice cube over the heart and stating that this practice can "calm" the heart palpitation down by "cooling" it to a more natural state, and if the patient believes it to be true, then the mind can potentially make it so in a significant number of people. In fact, I can state with some confidence that it will help in as many as 20 to 40% of patients.

How can I state such a statistic knowing my treatment is total hogwash? It's because of the placebo effect.

Although I don't support (and perhaps even discourage) such quack medicine, as long as it doesn't harm the patient and there's no danger if a patient decides to forgo more traditional and evidence-based medical treatment, then I don't see any long-lasting harm in it.

Because as scientists and doctors know, the placebo effect is real and does lead improvement nearly 40% of the time! Who cares if the activation mechanism of the placebo effect is via "therapeutic hands" or "local honey" or some other unaccepted treatment.

After all, the patient is feeling better and that's what really counts in the end. And if it doesn't work, then traditional medical treatments can be pursued.

What is evidence-based, scientifically proven medical treatment? It's when the treatment helps people way more than the placebo (or in other words, way more than 40%).

This post by Christopher Chang, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.