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Surprising Science

How to Think Yourself Better

Even though the magnets, crystals and ultra-dilute solutions of alternative medicines are, by themselves, completely useless, the placebo effect they induce in patients sometimes is not.

What’s the Latest Development?

Dr. Edzard Ernst is the world’s first professor of complementary medicine and while he is scheduled to retire soon, he will leave behind extensive research on the effects of alternative medicines. “According to his Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine, around 95% of the treatments he and his colleagues examined—in fields as diverse as acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy and reflexology—are statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments. In only 5% of cases was there either a clear benefit above and beyond a placebo.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Alternative medicine is a global industry worth an estimated $60 billion. Surrounding the industry is a passionate debate over its effectiveness at treating illness—its patrons swear by its methods while traditional doctors dismiss the practices as quackery. While Dr. Ernst believes alternative medicine produces positive results through the placebo effect, he maintains that traditional medicine can learn from how alternative medicine is practiced, namely the therapeutic value of the placebo effect. According to Harvard research, pain and depression are two disorders most susceptible to the placebo effect. 


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