Some Surgery Is No Better Than Sham “Placebo” Surgery

The placebo effect isn’t just for pills

Jochen Tack/imageBROKER/Corbis

The power of modern medicine is a marvel of science. But, sometimes, the illusion of medicine is just as strong. This situation is most familiar for sugar “placebo” pills, but as the New York Times points out some common invasive surgeries are no more useful than a placebo. But unlike a harmless tab of sugar, surgery poses real risks. So why do doctors keep doing them?

Your body has an uncanny ability to heal itself, and in some cases, the appeal of medical care is so strong that just the idea that you're receiving it can be enough to spur a change in your health.

Scientists don't fully understand the placebo effect (or its dark side, the nocebo effect), but when designing and testing new drugs, they have to test a new medication's effects against a placebo, to make sure they're not just measuring the body's own handiwork. But when designing new surgical techniques, no such placebo-controlled trial is required, says the Times, meaning that there are a whole load of “sham surgeries” out there.

In studies, researchers found that for some specific surgical procedures (such as arthreoscopic surgery of the knee), patients who received fake surgeries—they had the incision, but nothing else happened—healed just the same as those that had the surgery for real. The Times:

Many who heard about the results were angry that this study occurred. They thought it was unethical that people received an incision, and most likely a scar, for no benefit. But, of course, the same was actually true for people who had arthroscopy or lavage: They received no benefit either.

Cutting someone open poses inherent risks: of reaction to anaesthetic, of infection, of malpractice. Then there are the costs. According to the Times, Americans “or their insurers spent about $3 billion that year on a procedure that was no better than a placebo.”

Americans spend more $2.8 trillion a year on healthcare. It's probably best if that money goes to procedures that aren't just surgical sugar pills.

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