Power of the MIND: Patients cured by sham surgeries because they think the surgeon solved their problem
06/17/2017 // Tracey Watson // Views

Scientists have long been aware of what is known as the “placebo effect,” which refers to a treatment that has a positive therapeutic impact on a patient, even though the treatment or medication they received wasn’t actually real. Drugs.com notes that placebo effects have been noted in as many as 40 percent of patients in research studies. But did you know that even surgery is subject to this effect, and that patients can actually be cured by totally fake operations?

The U.K.’s Daily Mail reports that thousands of patients are possibly undergoing invasive surgical procedures for nothing, because the benefits they perceive are placebo effects rather than actual results of the surgery.

Many different types of surgery may be putting patients at unnecessary risk, including keyhole knee surgery, gastric balloons for the morbidly obese and arthritis operations. Surgery for endometriosis, a debilitating condition which can cause infertility and extremely painful periods for women, is another type of surgery in which the results seem to rest more in the mind of the patient than in the surgery itself. [Discover more about the power of the mind at Psychiatry.news]

Other possibly useless surgeries include vertebroplasty, which involves fusing vertebrae by injecting liquid bone cement into the spine; migraine implants; and the removal of damaged bone in osteoarthritis patients.

Studies have found that patients who undergo sham surgeries and are never actually operated on can recover virtually as well as those who really do have the surgery. It would seem that people’s minds are so powerful that just expecting a procedure to work is enough to do the job. [RELATED: Did you know that surgical removal of wisdom teeth is often just a sham?]


Andrew Carr, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Oxford, believes that for certain surgeries patients should be advised about this placebo effect. He notes that the hospital environment, medical professionals being dressed in a certain way, and the fact that the patient is put under anesthesia, combine to “create a phenomenal placebo effect.”

“The correct thing has got to be to do the trials, and not to continue doing operations where we don’t know whether or not there’s a strong placebo component or an entire placebo component, because that means that tens or hundreds of thousands of patients are having unnecessary operations,” Professor Carr noted.

Of course, getting surgeons who have been performing a certain procedure for many years to accept that it is essentially unnecessary can be very difficult. Nonetheless, it is important that they recognize which procedures can be avoided to spare their patients unnecessary and even dangerous surgical interventions.

For a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers reviewed multiple clinical trials to compare true surgical results versus placebo. They found that in 39 out of 53 trials there was an improvement among the placebo control group. In 27 of the studies they found that results were no different for the placebo group when compared to the surgical group. Interestingly, in 18 of the trials serious adverse effects were reported among the control group, which really illustrates the power of the mind.

In 2014, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study which once again proved the power of sham surgeries. Participants in the trial were divided into two groups; one group received knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, while the second group only thought they had received the surgery. All the patients were put under anesthesia, and the surgical team went to great lengths to pass instruments and do whatever was necessary to make sure that even patients who could hear what was going on would not know that they were not truly being operated on. Amazingly, both groups recovered from their injuries equally well.

So, next time your surgeon wants to operate on you, it might be worth doing a little extra research and finding out if the surgery is truly necessary.






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