The placebo effect is well recognized in medical research and is taken into account in legitimate studies.
A placebo is a sham medical intervention. In one common placebo procedure, a patient is given an inert sugar pill, told that it may improve his/her condition, but not told that it is in fact inert. Such an intervention may cause the patient to believe the treatment will change his/her condition; and this belief does indeed sometimes have a therapeutic effect, causing the patient’s condition to improve. This phenomenon is known as the placebo effect.
When an inert substance makes a patient better, that effect is called the placebo effect. The phenomenon is related to the perception and expectation which the patient has; if the substance is viewed as helpful, it can heal, but if it is viewed as harmful, it can cause negative effects, which is known as the nocebo effect. Placebo effects are a scientific mystery.
A distinguishing characteristic of legitimate scientific research is having control group to gauge how much of any positive effect shown is real and how much can be ascribed to the placebo effect.
For this study, 34 children ages 6 to 15 years old who had been diagnosed with functional abdominal pain by a physician were recruited to participate by pediatric gastroenterologists at UNC Hospitals and Duke University Medical Center. All received standard medical care and 19 were randomized to receive eight weeks of guided imagery treatment. A total of 29 children finished the study; 15 in the guided imagery plus medical treatment group and 14 in the medical treatment alone group.
Randomization also lends credibility to any study’s results since it removes a potential source bias and accusations of stacking the deck to achieve preselected results.
When we then heard that children were able to reduce abdominal pain by up to half through the power of their imagination we were skeptical but not entirely disbelieving. Other studies have shown similar results:
Prior studies have found that behavioral therapy and guided imagery (a treatment method similar to self-hypnosis) are effective, when combined with regular medical care, to reduce pain and improve quality of life. But for many children behavioral therapy is not available because it is costly, takes a lot of time and requires a highly trained therapist.
This study was different because the guided imagery material was prepared for the children to use on their own, independently of therapists.
The guided imagery sessions, developed jointly by van Tilburg, co-investigator Olafur Palsson, Psy.D. and Marsha Turner, the study coordinator, were recorded on CDs and given to children in the study to use at home.
The treatment consisted of a series of four biweekly, 20-minute sessions and shorter 10-minute daily sessions. In session one, for example, the CD directs children to imagine floating on a cloud and relaxing progressively. The session then gives them therapeutic suggestions and imagery for reducing discomfort, such as letting a special shiny object melt into their hand and then placing their hand on their belly, spreading warmth and light from the hand inside the tummy to make a protective barrier inside that prevents anything from irritating the belly.
The results are incredible:
In the group that used guided imagery, the children reported that the CDs were easy and enjoyable to use. In that group, 73.3 percent reported that their abdominal pain was reduced by half or more by the end of the treatment course. Only 26.7 percent in the standard medical care only group achieved the same level of improvement. This increased to 58.3 percent when guided imagery treatment was offered later to the standard medical care only group. In both groups combined, these benefits persisted for six months in 62.5 percent of the children.
The study concluded that guided imagery treatment plus medical care was superior to standard medical care alone for the treatment of functional abdominal pain, and that treatment effects were sustained over a long period.
Video games can have powerful and positive effect in developing and strengthening a child’s mind. Of course, there are plenty of other things to do which can develop a child’s imagination in that mystical land referred to as “not in front of the TV”.