As a complementary therapist, I am very aware of the scepticism felt by some members of the public and many conventional doctors. Medics are prepared to accept the benefits of osteopathy or reflexology or homeopathy and they throw up their arms in horror or give you a patronising smile and mutter something about the “placebo effect”.

So what is the placebo effect? Put simply, the idea is that if you believe something will make you feel better, then it will. Sometimes, if a patient is given blank pills (that is, tablets with no actual medicine in them) they get better. Doctors have used this method to treat hypochondriacs, or patients who seem to have no obvious physical reason for their symptoms. When the patients improve, it is their own belief in the possibility of cure that allows them to heal. This makes sense because many illnesses have a psychological origin, such as stress or grief.

Conventional Medicine vs Complementary Medicine

When a patient is given drugs, several things can happen:

  • their symptoms can improve
  • they can stay the same – no better and no worse
  • their symptoms can get worse
  • they can develop other symptoms, either soon after taking the drugs, or in later years

When a patient is treated with complimentary medicine, such as homeopathy:

  • their symptoms can improve
  • they can experience a temporary aggravation of symptoms (or brief return of previous symptoms) followed by a marked improvement
  • they can stay the same – no better and no worse

When a doctor prescribes a drug and the patient improves, the medical world celebrate, claiming that the drug is wonderful. When a therapist treats a patient with complementary therapy and the patient improves, the medical world say it is just the placebo effect! And that continues to happen despite the growing number of scientific and real-world studies that show how useful homeopathy, reflexology and other therapies can be.

That’s a very good question! All over the world, people use various forms of complementary medicine and swear by its beneficial effects. And yet, the NHS and some international health services are fighting hard to prevent people from using them. Almost all forms of complementary medicine are rejected by those working in conventional medicine. My opinion is that this is because:

  • The theories behind complementary challenge many of the things that conventional doctors have been taught.
  • Complementary therapies could never generate enough profit to satisfy the drug companies, which have tremendous power over the NHS.

Does Complementary Medicine Rely on the Placebo Effect?

This is a question that will continue to be asked for many years to come. Because we don’t use pharmaceuticals or surgery in complementary medicine, conventional doctors can’t accept that it works. They claim that it’s not scientific. But holistic therapies are based on science. It’s just that the science doesn’t match their beliefs. In homeopathy, we try to match a remedy as closely as possible to the person’s individual symptoms. We pay attention to the way the disease affects the individual patient, rather than comparing the patient with a group of other people and trying to treat them all the same. In reflexology we break down deposits in the feet to improve circulation and improve communication along nerve pathways. 

Does It Matter How it Works?

In the end, the most important thing is that people who receive complementary medicine often get great results. Not every therapy will work for every patient (just as not every drug works for every patient in conventional medicine). Sometimes a therapy can work almost miraculously, and the patient improves dramatically within minutes. Sometimes the healing energy in their bodies has become so weak that it takes a while for them to respond. My experience as a therapist has convinced me that the science behind my treatments is sound. But I don’t get upset when doctors claim that the positive effects are due to the placebo effect, rather than the work that I do. (I could argue the same about many of the conventional treatments given by GPs and specialists.) As long as my clients find that my therapies help them feel better, that’s what matters to me.