Trial Balloon

Ask Dr. Heartlander

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 14, 2010 by Dale Connelly (20 Comments)
Filed under: Ask Dr. Heartlander


Dear Dr. Heartlander,

I have been diagnosed with SSS (Severe Suggestibility Syndrome), a rare malady characterized by frequent and changeable symptoms that mirror whatever medical condition I've recently been told about.

For example, a few months ago when my mother came down with hives I suddenly felt itchy. When my friend got the flu I couldn't eat for three days and once when a woman at work told me she was lactose intolerant I had a sudden bout of extreme flatulence that made it necessary for me to go home in the middle of the afternoon.

My doctor gave me some cube shaped pills that he identified as a new medication designed to treat my problem. He said the drug was called "Feelbetterin". I was supposed to dissolve one with coffee in the morning and another in hot tea before bed. I did as I was told and the symptoms went away.

I was delighted. At my next visit I asked my doctor if I could get a prescription for a long term supply of the drug and he told me the paperwork wouldn't be necessary - "Feelbetterin" was just ordinary sugar cubes. I felt embarrassed and betrayed.

I accused my doctor of duping me for his own amusement and he admitted that he does have a problem with compulsively lying to gullible patients about phony treatments ... a practice defined in the clinical dictionary of rare disorders as "Bamboozling Suckers". There is no cure.

I know my doctor can't control his BS Disorder, but I'm still angry.

And now I find myself compelled to tell all my friends about the benefits of Feelbetterin. I even re-packaged and sent a box of sugar cubes to my anemic brother-in-law with a note saying it was a free sample and he should take two a day.

Dr. Heartlander, has my untreated SSS given me a bad case of incurable BSD? Or am I just being spiteful?

E.O. Placebo

I told E.O. that not only was "Feelbetterin" a fake medication, but Severe Suggestibility Syndrome and Bamboozling Suckers Disorder were both phony illnesses. Since only make believe treatments can work on non existent conditions, he should go back to using the two sugar cubes daily until a time comes when he forgets to take them.
At that point, he should consider switching to honey in his tea.

But that's just my opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Heartlander?

Comments (20)

i think if it works and it doesn't hurt anyone (like, cost a million dollars or harm animals or the environment) then go for it.
but poor EOP should be careful that he is not practicing quackery without a license.
i have SSS by proxy. every time i read about some weird condition in the goat disease book i start to think maybe my goats have it - whatever it is. while Dodger would probably love two sugar cubes a day, Niblet prefers cheerios. they cure everything, he says.

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | May 14, 2010 6:14 AM

Dear Suggestible, your comments address one of the central dilemmas of the human condition, namely the tension between reality and the appearance of reality. We assume we are inhabiting a real world, when all we have to go by are appearances, and sometimes we find that what we took to be real was only real in our heads.

Anyone who thinks the lines separating appearance and firm reality are sharp and clear has not studied humans very well.

Or dogs. A friend owned two English springer spaniels, sisters. When one was bred but not the other, the "spinster" springer experienced a sympathetic pregnancy that caused her body to bloat up. When her sister finally gave birth to a litter of puppies, this dog collected several tennis balls and spent days mothering them as if they were puppies.

You speak too harshly, Dr Heartlander, when you write off Feelbetterin as "fake" medicine. Much of the difference between what is fake and what is real is in our heads, and--gee-that is another way of saying that reality is mighty fuzzy and volatile.

Pass the Feelbetterin. I have a sick dog and could use the mood boost.

Have a wonderful weekend, RHers!

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 14, 2010 6:16 AM

Good Morning all. So, according to what we have been told SSS and BSD are not real diseases and sugar cubes are not a real cure for SSS. Where is the proof for this? A test is needed.

We need a double blind test where we try to determine if the sugar cube treatment is due to a placebo effect with some cubes used that look like sugar cubes but are not. If it turns out sugar cubes are placebos, the fake sugar cubes could give a placebo effect for a placebo, so we must not tell the SSS patients that sugar cubes or fake sugar cubes will work and only that we are trying to find out if they do work.

Of course the SSS patients might get well due a palacebo effect from giving them any thing that they are told might be a treatment for their disease, in which case, if SSS is a real disease and not a fake disease as we have assumed, we might conclude that placebos are actually a cure for this disease. Also, apparently doctors with BSD are really specialists in the treatment of SSS.

Posted by Jim | May 14, 2010 6:40 AM

i married into a family where the illness of the day was the main topic of discussion. it was a very different world for me. they thought of nothing else and i couldn;t understand it. the sugar pills would have done much less damage than the ever changing assortment of pills and exilers that got perscribed for all the illness that came along.
i switched to homeopathic voodoo where the premise is that all they offer is sugar pills but each one is infused with the essence of nuts and berries for you particular illness. it has worked wonderfully and yet my former inlaws are still in surch of the cure of the day from the pharmisist and i would guess feelbetterin would be a less consequencial attempt at a cure than the perscriptions they get now.

Posted by tim | May 14, 2010 6:44 AM

Of course we don't all love ourselves quite enough and when that happens we need it from others. Believing you are ill with an imagined malady is a cry for help. Just give it a kiss and if you don't want to do that passing the sugar or liquor are similarly effective.

RHers would do well to celebrate their perhaps relative mental and phsyical well being (not to mention love of self) on this quite lovely May day!

Posted by Kim in Saint Paul | May 14, 2010 6:56 AM

Greetings! I'm too sleep-deprived to come up with my own response.

Steve - I like your description of reality -- so true!
Jim - good description of the current junk science used to get drugs FDA approval
Tim - Your in-laws make me very sad. Glad you had the sense to try something different.
Kim - It all comes down to love, doesn't it?
Barb - Cheerios as a cure-all - I like that.

Can't get RH. Kids now off to school. Must sleep. Happy day!

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 14, 2010 7:19 AM

Dear E.O. -

I think perhaps what you need is some art therapy. Go to your local grocer and buy a box of Feelbetterin (probably found in the baking aisle) and a bottle of Elmer's glue. Create a sculpture depicting how you feel about your doctor, your severe suggestibility, your friends and family, the paper vs. plastic conundrum, and the state of the world. Buy extra boxes of Feelbetterin if needed. If you feel the need for further catharsis when you're done with your sculpture, leave it outside in a good rainstorm and watch it, and all of your problems, dissolve.

Happy sunny weekend all!

Posted by Anna | May 14, 2010 7:26 AM

SSS needs to smile continuously for two minutes every time he finds himself feeling low. It releases endorphins directly into the brain to improve mood. He may need to take analgesics to soothe his sore facial muscles, but it will be worth it. (I am perfectly serious about this, by he way. It really works.)

Posted by Renee | May 14, 2010 7:49 AM

Joanne has suggested that I was indirectly commenting on juke science used to test drugs. i think double blind tests are probably good ways to test drugs, but I'm not a trained drug tester. Of course, you need to repeat the testing of Feelbetterin several times and do some other studies to get it released as a drug. Probably it could just be reported as an alternative treatment that shows promise and it could become the latest fad to be used for self treatment or by people who specialize in recommending alternative treatments.

Posted by Jim | May 14, 2010 8:21 AM

Barb - WHAT!? Cheerios makes everything better? My Mom said it was toast, and she practiced her beliefs faithfully: Stomach ache? Toast. Broken wrist? Toast. Broken heart? Toast. And not from home made, whole wheat bread either, no siree - Wonder bread, and sometimes, when the food budget allowed, Welch's grape jelly accompanied the toast. It seemed to do the trick, and was the medical treatment of choice for all ten of us kids.
When I was old enough to attend events where-in people saluted one another by making a toast, I knew exactly what they meant: "Good health and happiness to you". That made perfect sense. Perhaps that's why the British say "Cheerios"?

Posted by Teri in Zimmerman | May 14, 2010 8:50 AM

I've spotted what I think is a new strategy by the pharmaceutical companies - convincing people they need to take two drugs when they used to take one. Anyone else seen that ad on TV - if your antidepressant doesn't work very well, don't stop taking it! Just take this new drug with it. It enhances the effect.

So if the Feelbetterin doesn't work well for you, just add the toast or the Cheerios. Or both.

Posted by Linda in Saint Paul (West Side) | May 14, 2010 9:14 AM

terri, i will think of that while making toast for the next while. it could well be. i havn't practiced the apple a day to keep the doctor away but i have been partaking in a daily toast for many years. bagels and muffins sneak in on occasion but mostly toast. thats undoubtably why i am healthy as a horse. i prefer the varieties with tree bark in them to the wonder bread but i always remember nancy gordon who would smoosh her wonder bread up into a ball. ( size of a ping pong ball) and eat it lke a dumpling. i cant do that with mine it turns into a scouring pad or sanding block. healthy weekend all. trying to fit the open house at mpr into the schedule dale. sunday is seldom an open day but if it can be done it will.

Posted by tim | May 14, 2010 9:16 AM

love it linda

Posted by tim | May 14, 2010 9:17 AM

Linda - I like your strategy. Feelbetterin with toast or Cheerios. Maybe you could make it a feel good cocktail and add some chocolate ice cream. Mmm. Now I'm getting hungry...

Posted by Anna | May 14, 2010 9:24 AM

I decided the other day there is a giant conspiracy between the pharmaceutical companies and my chiropractor because the dang Omega Three pills really do make my knees feel better.
...mumble mumble hate it when the chiropractor, Dr Bob is right... mumble mumble...

Posted by Ben | May 14, 2010 9:39 AM

Greetings! I am better rested now. Tim - sorry, I didn't mean to say a good, well-designed double-blind trial is junk science. What came to my mind were instances like Dr. Scott Reuben who fabricated 21 studies to get drugs like Vioxx, Celebrex, Lyrica, etc., approved by FDA. All these studies were published in respected medical journals, even though they were totally made up.

Another instance is when in-house writers of drug companies "ghost write" studies that are published under names of doctors or high level academics -- a common practice. Or when 11 studies are done, but they only present the 2 for publication and approval that gave them favorable results -- in other words, cherry-picking. Sorry for ranting -- this is a pet peeve of mine.

While the natural/alternative health arena is certainly not blameless or perfect, there's skullduggery all around. With the billions of $$ involved in pharmaceuticals and the trust folks have in them and the dangerous side effects possible; misrepresentation is the highest crime. To see for yourself, go to and do a search on "fabricated FDA studies" as I did. You will not find these items on mainstream news, unfortunately.

I apologize for being a downer here. There's a book by Dr. Michael Murray "What Pharmaceutical Companies Don't Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn't Know" or something to that effect. Astounding book. Anyway, I'll step off my soapbox and be quiet now.

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 14, 2010 10:32 AM

No time to read now, but wanted to thank you, Dale, for the Chris Williamson and Sally Rogers this morning - brought a smile to our faces.

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 14, 2010 1:46 PM

Barbara--thought that had to be you when he played it but was not quite sure. So happy, 30th was it?
Joanne--I am going to steal your soapbox: this is a long complicated topic, but far more than half of scientific studies that depend upon statistics use the stats incorrectly, according to studies done by statisticians. Most scientists who use the stats and report them do not understand them. I used to work at the U of M as a low-level lab tech. I once told one of my bosses that his findings did not show a meaningful difference. That was of course an error on my part. His results were published to great acclaim and probably were correct, just bad stats. Secondly most scientific studies use what is often called the rule of 5 to determine validity. Nobody has a clue if the rule of 5 has any validity. This is one of the primary reasons that so many medical studies contradict other studies--bad stats.
Forget journalists understanding stats, or the general public. Most common error is thinking correlation proves cause and effect. (If two factors rise or fall into relationship to each other). If correlation proves cause and effect then I can prove storks cause babies. Pat Robertson loves this faulty logic--America fell part this way when this think happened (such as dropping prayer in school).
Second most common error is not knowing meaningful difference. If you look at the Nealson top ten watched shows of each week, you will see that there is in effect no statistically meaningful difference between most of them. Sorry, this got long, but it is brief for a long topic. A new report on bad stats in science just came out, which I read and then Joanne posted her fine post.
By the way, one study says only about 40% of accountants and techs and engineers can do fifth grade math, which is the national average. (And that study is good use of stats.)

Anyway, good week end all, especially Dale and Mike

Posted by Clyde | May 14, 2010 2:39 PM

Clyde - thank you for your insightful and interesting post. Although I have no knowledge and very little understanding of statistics, I do know they can be "massaged" and misleading when used inappropriately. This is another factor in addition to the facts I pointed out.

Whenever I see or hear a 2 or 3 sentence sound bite regarding "scientific studies show ...," my red flags go up and I do NOT accept it as fact until I have read or have a better understanding of the study parameters, who paid for it, how many subjects involved, study design, etc. Not that I'm very technical, but knowing how much money is at stake for most pharmaceuticals, you just can't trust a headline PR "summary" under the guise of news.

It's unfortunate that most good studies done on nutrition, herbs. medical alternatives, etc., do not make the news and are typically done in Europe or the UK.

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 14, 2010 7:42 PM

My point, and I think you got this and I want to make sure, is that even when people are not trying to lie with the numbers, many of them just don't understand and apply the numbers correctly.
It's like the bar bets, questions like how many people do you have to have before the odds are that two of them will have the same birthday (day and month)? Instinct says the number is 1/2 of 365 or 183 but it is really something like 38.

Posted by Clyde in Mankato | May 14, 2010 9:56 PM

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