Tim Brunson DCH

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Surgeons and shamans: the placebo value of ritual

Surgeons have conducted placebo-controlled double-blind investigations to determine the value of surgical procedures by comparing the results of real operations with sham operations. The sham operation served as a placebo control, permitting analysis of the alleged benefit of the real operation by eliminating the effect caused by the rest of the surgical experience. A modern operation starts with a series of events resembling ritualistic practices used by shamans. Shamans are traditional healers in cultures that believe communication with the gods and spirits influences health and well being. Shamanistic healing measures include: journeying to a healing place, fasting, wearing ritual garb, ingesting psychotrophic substances, anointment with purifying liquid, an encounter with a masked healer, and inhaling stupefactive vapors. These steps are followed by a central ritual activity that may include extracorporeal, surface, and penetrative components. Postoperative ritual activities reinforce the suggestive value of the healing. These experiences increase a patient's suggestibility, thereby enhancing the likelihood of a favorable outcome. Any research on the effectiveness of surgical procedures, especially those designed to relieve pain, must consider the strongly suggestive effect of the elaborate perioperative ritual.

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, School of Medicine, University of California-Irvine, UCI Medical Center, 101 The City Drive, Orange, CA 92868, USA. sgreen@uci

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