The Mystery of the Placebo Effect: Fake Surgery and the Big Question - Part II

Updated: Nov 14

Placebo as Surgery

When I first stumbled upon the concept of “sham surgery” (fake and, sometimes, staged placebo surgery) I was quite literally blown away.

I could understand how aches and pains could be relieved through placebos, had a rough understanding of the fact that placebos may reverse cancer, yet the idea of fake surgeries having the same effects as real ones was not something I would have deemed as possible.

Yet reliable scientific evidence and recorded cases indicate that, shockingly, this may indeed be possible.

According to an article by the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bruce Moseley, an orthopaedic surgeon, performed a study that showed how ‘sham surgery’ can be as effective as real surgery. Dr. Moseley divided participants into two groups: one group received his real famous knee surgery, while the other group received the placebo: ’sham surgery’. The patients were not aware that they were to receive sham surgery, which led them to expect a recovery and believe in the surgery’s effectiveness.

The ‘sham surgery’ was sufficiently staged to mimic the conditions of a real surgery: the patients were sedated, real incisions were made on their bodies, the patient was shown a prerecorded video clip of the surgery on a screen, and water was splashed around to imitate the sound of a lavage procedure. The knee was simply sewed back up, without any real intervention to the injury nor any treatment to the affected area.

One third of the patients from the real-surgery group had their knee pain disappear. Yet very astonishingly, the sham-surgery group had the same result! (Moseley, 2002)

Another astounding case surrounding the effectiveness of sham surgery was reported in BBC’s documentary “The Power of the Placebo,” in which an elderly woman fell down the stairs and severely injured her back, losing her ability to sit, walk, and stand. She experienced intense pain and was in desperate need of medical help.

She went to Mayo Clinic’s Dr. David Kallmes for his famous vertebroplasty surgery, a surgery during which a medical cement-like substance is injected into an injured bone to mend it. The woman ended up being part of Kallmes’ investigation and was, without her knowledge, assigned to receive sham surgery.

She recovered completely after it, reclaiming her ability to walk, sit and stand properly. In less than a week, she was even back to playing golf! Her pain did not return. (BBC)

The Big Question

If belief in healing and recovery is the sole component contributing to positive change in a patient’s health and wellbeing, then will the Placebo Effect still work if an individual knows that they are receiving a placebo?

Spoiler: yes, it will!

Medical studies have shown that even if patients are aware of being treated with a placebo, they may still experience real improvements and recovery!

A study led by Harvard University professor Ted Kaptchuk showed that placebo painkillers labeled as ‘placebo’ (thus the participants knew they were receiving a placebo) were 50% as effective at reducing migraine pain as were real painkiller drugs. (Science Translational Medicine).

If so, then what is the actual driving force behind the Placebo Effect? What if it is positive emotions associated with taking medication or receiving any form of treatment, whether that be real or ‘sham’?

Well, mere laughter has been shown to improve the functioning of the heart, leading it to “pump more evenly” and boost the immune system, thus helping the body fight off an infection, suggesting that positive emotions may indeed have an indirect effect on our overall health and the way our body manages diseases. (Mora-Ripoll, 2010)

Can we use these tools to purposefully recreate the Placebo Effect in our lives?

Kaptchuk suggests that this may be a fruitful idea, stating: “Engaging in the ritual of healthy living — eating right, exercising, yoga, quality social time, meditating — probably provides some of the key ingredients of a placebo effect.” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019)

However, despite the astonishing evidence about the Placebo Effect’s potential, it cannot substitute real medical intervention. It must always be kept in mind that the evidence of the Placebo Effect’s promising capabilities is not foolproof and that the Placebo Effect should not be used to treat serious conditions or life-threatening diseases.

But if there is one thing that the mighty Placebo Effect does teach us, it is this: our mind has power over our bodies and wellbeing. It may be our greatest friend and rescuer, or our most fearsome enemy, depending on how we use it.

If our mind can literally alter our physical state to an extent, then just imagine what collective faith in positivity, love and kindness can do to the world!

I would, therefore, like to end this article with a quote by Norman Vincent Peale:

“Change your thoughts and you change the world.”

About the author:

I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!



Works cited in part I & part II:

Kaptchuk, Ted, Science Translational Medicine (2014)

Klopfer, Bruno, “Psychological Variables in Human Cancer,” Journal of Projective Techniques 21, no. 4 (December 1957): 331-40. Mora-Ripoll R (2010). Therapeutic value of laughter in medicine. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 16(6): 56–64. Moseley, J. Bruce et al., “A Controlled Trial of Arthroscopic Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Knee,” New England Journal of Medicine 347 (July 11, 2002): 81-88. Rankin, Lissa. Mind Over Medicine. May, 2013.

Science Translational Medicine, 2014.

The Power of the Placebo, BBC-Horizon, 2014.

“The Power of the Placebo Effect.” Harvard Health, 9 Aug. 2019,

Watts, Geoff 2005, Elisha Perkins and his ‘medical tractors’.

Wechsler, Michael E. et al., “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma,” New England Journal of Medicine 365 (July 14, 2011): 119-26.

#psychology #neuroscience #medicine #placebo #placeboeffect #health

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