Sham Surgeries – Harness the Placebo Effect

Sham Surgeries – Harness the Placebo Effect

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Real and Fake Surgeries

The placebo effect has puzzled researchers for decades, but never has it been more puzzling than what was recently found when a real heart surgery was compared to a fake heart surgery…

In a recent study published in The Lancet, 200 patients with blocked arteries in their hearts were randomly given a real surgery — where a balloon-tipped catheter and a stent were used to expand and keep open the blocked artery — or fake surgery. During the fake surgery, they inserted the catheter but did nothing else.

After the real and fake surgeries, both groups experienced less pain and performed better on treadmill tests than they did before the surgeries. This suggests that the sham or fake surgery worked as well as the real surgery. (1) With more than half a million of these surgeries performed each year, the effectiveness of these surgeries has come into question. The science shows that diet, exercise, lifestyle, and drugs are just as effective as surgery, not to mention much less expensive and less invasive! (2)

While surgeries deliver the most powerful bang for your buck, the placebo effect often out-performs drug therapy. In one meta-analysis of 79 studies on migraine headaches: (2)

  • Sugar pills reduced migraine frequency by 22%
  • Fake acupuncture helped by 38%
  • Sham surgery for migraines reduced migraine frequency by 58%

Mind over matter has never been more real than when, in 2002, 180 patients with degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee were made famous in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. They were all randomly divided into three groups and told they were getting knee surgery, but one group received a fake surgery. The two groups received the knee surgery they expected, and the people in the third group were put under, received an incision, and were immediately sewn back up to make it seem as though they too had received surgery. (3)

The results were astounding! All three groups were expected to get better and all three groups did get better. At the post-surgical follow-up after 24 months, there was no difference between the group that got the surgery and the group that got the fake surgery. Two years later, when the placebo group was told that they did not, in fact, get the actual surgery, they were happily doing things like walking, bending, and climbing stairs – activities they could not do before the surgery! The state-of-the-art knee surgery was no more effective than a placebo! (3)

The placebo effect is an undisputed medical fact that packs a formidable therapeutic punch, with effective rates ranging from 35% to a whopping 82%. (4-10) It often matches and even outperforms effectiveness rates for many pharmaceuticals (10), regularly outperforms antidepressants (3), and can even lower blood pressure. (11)

The good news is that placebo and fake surgery research has reduced many surgeries – by up to 50% according to some studies. Interestingly, since the famous knee surgery study discussed above was publicized, arthroscopic knee surgeries have dropped by 28%. (2)

Based on the well-documented power of the placebo, could the power of the mind, if harnessed, influence the body to live a longer, healthier, more prosperous and joyful life?

I believe the answer is YES, but to do so, we have to flip medicine upside-down or, more precisely, inside-out.

According to Ayurveda, employing the mind as a tool for our healing potential was a basic understanding. Of course, this was laughed at by modern medicine, but now with so much compelling evidence citing the benefits of the placebo effect, it is becoming more difficult to ignore.

According to Ayurveda, the major obstacle to self-healing is the over-stimulation of hormones like dopamine, which drive addictive reward chemistry that convinces us that our healing, happiness, and health must come from the outside in the form of a pill, powder, or surgery.

Ayurveda teaches us the exact opposite – that all of the above must come from the inside, and our need to be satisfied by the outside world must be replaced by an ability to find satisfaction and happiness from giving, loving, and caring.

This comes with practice in the form of tangible actions that replace judgment and need with compassion, understanding, and giving. Think “random acts of kindness” to start. This is the underlying purpose of yoga, breathing, meditation, and prayer, to stop needing love, attention, or a drug, and replace it with giving love and attention. It is a simple, but challenging, shift from a dependency on reward chemistry to the chemistry of compassion, understanding, and love.

>>> Learn more about how to harness the healing mind in my many articles in the Emotional health category here on


  2. Wallis, C. Why Fake Operations Are a Good Thing. Scientific American. 2018
  8. Health Psychology: An Introduction to Behavior and Health By Linda Brannon, Jess Feist, John Updegraff, Cengage Learning, 8th edition, February 22, 2013, p. 23

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Dr. John

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