We all know about movies that are so bad, they’re good. But could the same thing apply to doctors?
As I described last week, Desiree Jennings is a young woman from Virginia who developed horrible symptoms, including muscle spasms and convulsions, after getting a flu vaccine. It looked a bit like a form of brain damage called dystonia.
Numerous neurologists concluded that her illness was mostly or entirely psychogenic. A certain Dr Rashid Buttar, however, said that she was suffering from neurological damage caused by toxins in the flu vaccine.
Buttar gave her chelation therapy to flush the toxins out. Within 15 minutes, she was cured. Biologically speaking, this is ludicrous. It’s flat-out impossible that chelation could reverse brain damage in 15 minutes, even if Jennings did have brain damage in the first place.
But Buttar’s treatment worked, amazingly well by all accounts. This is not surprising, because the illness was psychological in nature, and Dr Buttar’s treatment was, psychologically, very effective. Jennings was admitted to Dr Buttar’s private clinic; she had IV lines put in to her arm; Dr Buttar attached the chelation treatment to the IV drip and, in a textbook example of how to produce a placebo effect:
I told her “Now the magic should start”, prepared her for what I expected to happen. (interview with Dr Buttar, 05:30 onwards)
The magic did indeed happen, precisely because Dr Buttar convinced Jennings that it would.
What would have happened to Jennings if there were no Dr Buttars in the world? Her doctors would have run scans and tests to check if Jennings had any neurological damage. The results would have been normal. Jennings would probably have interpreted this as “We don’t know what’s wrong with you”, although experts would have suspected that the symptoms were most likely psychogenic.
At some point, someone would have had to raise that possibility with her. But the point about psychogenic illness is that it’s not “faking”, “acting” or “made up” – the patient believes they are ill. The symptoms don’t feel psychogenic. This is why people often interpret the suggestion that symptoms are psychogenic as saying “you’re not really ill” and hence “you’re either lying, or crazy”. Of course, patients suffering from psychogenic illness are neither, and they know it.
So, without complementary and alternative medicine, Jennings might have ended up believing herself to be suffering from an illness so obscure that doctors were unable to diagnose it, and hence, unable to cure it. A hopeless situation. A worse thing for someone with psychogenic symptoms to believe is hard to imagine.
Dr Buttar’s treatment was psychologically very powerful – precisely because he believed in it, so he was able to convince Jennings to believe in it. A doctor who realized that Jennings’ symptoms were psychogenic would have found it much harder to achieve the same result. In order to do so, they would have to lie to her, by pretending to believe in a treatment which they knew was just a placebo. This is hard – the doctor would need to be an excellent actor as well as a medic – not to mention ethically tricky.
Interestingly, 100 years ago, this problem wouldn’t have arisen. Doctors knew much less about diagnosis and there were few laboratory tests or scans in those days, so there was usually no way to prove that some symptoms were organic and others were psychogenic. Everyone got the same treatment. Of course, the treatments back then were less good at treating organic illnesses, but that wouldn’t necessarily have made them any worse as placebos. Ironically, as mainstream medicine gets better and better at diagnosing and treating disease, it may be getting worse at dealing with psychogenic symptoms.