Seeing the results of surgery improves outcome

A newly published study has demonstrated the remarkable influence of beliefs on our experience of illness by showing that patients undergoing surgery to correct painful spinal tears report greater improvement if they’ve been shown the fragments of the removed disc.

The researchers, a surgical team from St George’s Hospital in London, were aware that anxiety and depression had a major influence on recovery after surgery for a type of spinal disc tear, commonly but inaccurately known as a ‘slipped disc’.

They decided to try a simple measure to help patients feel less anxious and bolster their belief that a good job had been done: the surgeons presented randomly selected patients with the removed fragments from their back.

This simple technique had a remarkable effect. Patients given a ‘souvenir’ of their operation reported greater improvement in sciatic nerve pain, lower back pain, less pins and needles sensations, less leg weakness and a reduced use of pain killers.

This study adds to the increasing evidence that beliefs have a marked impact on how the symptoms of an illness manifest themselves.

We know this is particularly the case for pain, and different beliefs about what is causing the pain and the effect it has, regardless of what the reality might be, can have a significant impact on the duration and the intensity of the pain itself.

Link to PubMed entry for surgery study (via @bengoldacre).

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