Fake Surgery Provides Interesting Glimpse Into Health

Puzzled?  Surgery or change of thought! •© GLOW IMAGES omodels are used for illustrative purposes

Puzzled? Surgery or change of thought!
• © GLOW IMAGES
o models are used for illustrative purposes

When I saw the words “fake surgery” in a recent title in the Wall Street Journal, I simply had to read the article. “Fake knee surgery found to yield benefits,” the article stated, referencing researchers’ findings and conclusions that were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  I have heard of studies into fake pills or what we know as placebos, but had never heard of the surgical equivalent of placebo studies. And I was curious as to what the results might tell us about health and health care. (1)

Over 700,000 people in the U.S. undergo knee surgery each year to treat torn knee cartilage. Researchers in Finland decided to conduct a study to see how effective the surgery actually is.  They started with two sets of patients – one group was to receive actual knee surgery and the other group was to receive “fake knee surgery” – for the same problem – torn knee cartilage.  The patients were told in advance that some would receive real surgery and some would receive fake surgery.  Even knowing this, patients recovered at the same rate and after a year any difference in recovery simply disappeared.

Evidently fake surgery or “placebo surgery” has been going on for a long time. Like drug-based placebo research, it serves one of two purposes – to further educate us about the mind-body connection or to determine if a particular procedure is actually effective. The New York Times ran an article in January 2000 by Margaret Talbot, “The Placebo Prescription,” in which she reported that in the 1960’s a Seattle cardiologist, Leonard Cobb, “conducted a unique trial of a procedure then commonly used for angina, in which doctors made small incisions in the chest and tied knots in two arteries to try to increase blood flow to the heart. … Ninety percent of patients reported that this helped – but when Cobb compared it with placebo surgery in which he made the same incisions but did not tie off the arteries, the sham operations proved just as successful.” The procedure was soon abandoned. (2)

Talbot also reported that in 1994, Dr. J. Bruce Moseley, a surgeon and team doctor for the Houston Rockets, had scheduled arthritic knee surgery on ten men.  Two were to receive the usual surgery, three were to have minimum surgery and five were to receive no surgery just the semblance that surgery had been performed.  Six months after the surgery, the ten patients still didn’t know whether they had been faked out or not.  But all of them reported much less pain.  “None were unhappy with the outcome of the operation.”

Mosely was never interested in the Mind-Body connection, “he was simply skeptical about the specific benefit of arthroscopic surgery for arthritis of the knee and wanted to test its efficacy.  Arthroscopic knee surgery typically requires general anesthesia, which carries risks; the placebo procedure required only a sedative and was cheaper.  If patients responded just as favorably to a placebo why continue with arthroscopy?”

And, he performed the same placebo surgery on 180 patients divided into three different groups – debridement surgery, arthroscopic lavage surgery, fake surgery. “During two years of follow-up … the placebo patients reported better outcomes than the debridement patients at certain points during follow-up.  Throughout the two years, the patients were unaware of whether they had received real or placebo surgery.” (3)

Many studies show that surgeons are becoming more aware of the role a patient’s thought plays in a person’s general health, medical treatments and the recovery processes.  One study took into account the bedside manner of the anesthetist before surgery.  One group was treated brusquely and the other with warmth, sympathy and compassion.  The group treated with compassion “required only half the amount of painkilling medication and were discharged an overage of 2.6 days earlier.” New York Times

So, if improved health can be gained by a change in how a patient thinks about an illness, injury or chronic pain, doesn’t it make sense that we might increasingly find health solutions by understanding what needs to change in our thinking and starting there?

Physician Herbert Spiegel once put it this way: “The placebo effect can occur when conditions are optimal for hope, faith, trust and love.” (2)

Speaking to this idea more than a hundred years ago, Christian healer and health researcher Mary Baker Eddy said:  “A change in human belief changes all the physical symptoms, and determines a case for better or for worse.”  Her conclusions came from many years of researching the impact patient’s thinking and their relationship to God had on their own recovery.

Here are two examples, among many, I’ve seen of this kind of change taking place.

A friend of mine thought he had broken his wrist or badly sprained it for he was unable to use it for a week or two.  He was hoping the pain would just go away. When it didn’t, he went to a clinic and was told there was nothing wrong with the wrist. The pain immediately left and he was able to use it normally. The minute the fear left and he felt assured nothing was wrong, the pain was gone.

In another instance, a man experienced specific improvements in his health when, during a time of illness, he embarked on a change of thought that he referred to as an effort to “to know God better”. He suffered with acute tonsillitis which was complicated with heart disease.  Surgery had been recommended but his family did not have the money to pay for it.  He turned his thought away from the illness and focused it on what he could better understand about God and himself.  He was healed of both problems and his entire family was blessed. “There is always an answer for those who turn absolutely to God and are willing to lay down all for Christ.  The gift of joy is always available,” he said after this experience.

“If you can create a more effective healing practice based on the manipulation of meaning, then you’re going to heal more people,” says Daniel Moerman.  “Is it some sort of failure if it isn’t due to a pill?  The important thing is you’ve made somebody better.” (2)

  1.  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB20001424052702304244904579278442014913458
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/09/magazine/the-placebo-prescription.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
  3. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/07/020712075415.htm

Kate is interested in blogging about health, health care, spirituality, Christian Science, science, religion, the importance of prayer in maintaining a healthy mind and body.  She is a Christian Science practitioner and the media, legislative and public contact for Christian Science in the state of Maryland.