Placebo effects

The placebo effect is popular this week. There’s a New Scientist article that you can read half of without a log-in. There’s a badscience article in the Guardian, in which Ben Goldacre discusses research that suggests that things you think are healthy for you become so.

Topical for me. I managed to cover my legs with nettle stings from the knee down. This felt rather as if I’d smeared patches of petroleum jelly on my lower legs and set them alight. I still have burning blisters a couple of hours later. That was one mean nettle.

There was a brief time in which I assumed I’d been attacked by a mutant nettle and would now have amazing comic book crime-fighting powers that appeared whenever I got nettled.

The powers didn’t materialise. So. I started googling for remedies. Not just any remedies but things that I might have in the cupboard at a time when any nearby shop is shut. I’ve recently been buying antique household chemicals in yet another ludicrous attempt to make my life more ecologically pure. So I was hoping there would be some solution that involved borax or bicarb (having got the borax when I remembered that it is supposed to treat wasp stings, this being dying wasp season.)

I was more than happy to accept a placebo effect treatment. I’d already channelled Dr Hibbert from the Simpsons (“Anything I can give you would only be a placebo.” “Where can we get these placebos.”) As long as my legs stop burning, I’d suspend disbelief in almost anything.

WikiHow gave me answers that nettled me some more.

  1. Move away from the nettles to a nearby area, otherwise you could get stung again.
  2. Clean any mud and dirt from the affected area of the sting using clean, cold water on a clean cloth, towel or rag. Do not rub too hard or you will agitate the sting more.
  3. Look for a plant called the “dock plant”. This plant usually grows low conveniently around nettles. It has large leaves and a thick stem. Snap off a leaf with a stem.
  4. Chew on the end of the stem for about 3 seconds to soften the fiber (or rub with your forefinger and thumbnail), then rub the end of the stem on the sting.

Number 1 is comical. If you don’t have the sense to respond to a nettle sting by moving away from a nettle, you are probably a leper. In fact, unless you are actually standing in a nettle patch with your laptop using a wifi connection, you are almost certainly not getting actively stiung as you read it.

Anyway, the dock leaf advice that we all grew up with is almost certainly the very model of placebo effect advice. I doubt anyone on earth ever got real relief from a dock leaf. Searching for one does fill in time that you might otherwise spend whining and obsessing about the stings. And they are likely to be a bit cold and damp when your skin feels burning. But I bet that’s about it.

(Not that I wouldn’t have tried to find a dock leaf, but the offending nettle has forced itself through a slab of concrete and no handy docks have done the same.)

Anyway, rather than distracting myself in a futile dock leaf hunt, I got distracted by weird links that appeared in response to my Google search. Notably a link to natural pet care for stings. I was hoping it would say “smear sting with cream of tartar, cover with vinegar and brown paper,” or something reassuringly medieval like that, that I could at least try…

But, no. Even more off the wall. Some spray product that is a fair bit costlier than anything you’d buy in a pharmacy. Plus a link to Holistic pet consultation & Distance Energy Healing

Long Distance Pet Healing Service
Remote holistic energy healing for pet emergency, pet first aid, acute illness, chronic diseases, near death trauma, death-birth transition, physical symptoms, psychological & behavior cases. No shipping required.

Basically, you send money and somebody sends out holistic healing energy to your injured pet. (Or not, of course.)

The advertising blurb points out that, among its other advantages, this saves you wasting your time waiting for the express delivery service to bring you anything in exchange for your cash. The holistic healing is instant, as soon as your money is dispatched. 😀 You aren’t waiting for anything.

Does the placebo effect work on animals? Or just humans? If so, can I send you cash and you heal my nettle stings please?

Cunning new plan. I’ll pretend to myself that I’ve sent cash to holistic pet healers (placebo shopping) and just wait out the time I’d have spent failing to successfully pay for anything over tinterweb (if past form is any guide) and the stings should be miraculously healed.

4 thoughts on “Placebo effects

  1. As an aside, to stop me going on about what a big girls blouse you are over a few nettle stings ( 🙂 ) I noticed this:

    I’ve recently been buying antique household chemicals in yet another ludicrous attempt to make my life more ecologically pure.

    How do old fashioned chemicals count as “more ecologically pure?”

    Give me GM any day.

  2. TW

    I was thinking of a book I once bought from a second-hand shop called “Hints and wrinkles” that was full of weird 1920s household advice. (If I had it now, it would be on tinterweb. )

    It had millions of ways of making things from before you could go to a supermarket and buy creams ad sprays. They usually involved esoteric chemicals like borax and cream of tartar (whatever that is)

    I’m not really convinced that they are more ecological. I’d even grant most are less effective than products you can buy now.
    But they are almost certainly
    (a) cheaper and
    (b) more fun.

  3. I think you’re a bit unfair to the humble Dock leaf. There does seem to be a real chemical reason for it working.

    The nettle sting is methanoic acid. The dock leaf contains natural amines and natural antihistamines, which decrease the inflammation. The amines are solvated in the watery sap, making the sap alkaline. This neutralises the methanoic acid reducing the pain.

    I guess if dock leafs have never worked before for you, it might be to do with how the sap was extracted. Rubbing it is a wasted of time. To really get any benefit the leaf should be folded and crushed between the fingers to get the sap straight off.

    But that crazy holistic (read bullshit) thing is definitely a placebo. There’s absolutely no possible way it could actually work. It’s just some crazy old get rich scheme. And it probably does work as that. If I had less scruples, some ‘holistic’ enterprise would be a good way to cure my money woes.

  4. XanderG
    My thoughts entirely (on the get rich quick scams.)

    Maybe I’ve never got a dock leaf to work because I’m never been sure that I’ve got the right plant.And I’ve only ever tried rubbing it with the leaf.

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