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bibliography * The PainScience Bibliography contains plain language summaries of thousands of scientific papers and others sources, like a specialized blog. This page is about a single scientific paper in the bibliography, Louw 2016.

Four orthopedic surgeries no better than placebo

Louw A, Diener I, Fernández-de-Las-Peñas C, Puentedura EJ. Sham Surgery in Orthopedics: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Pain Med. 2016 Jul. PubMed #27402957.
Tags: surgery, scientific medicine, harms, counter-intuitive, mind, bad news, treatment, pain problems

PainSci summary of Louw 2016?This page is one of thousands in the bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focused on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided at the bottom of the page, as often as possible. ★★★★☆?4-star ratings are for bigger/better studies and reviews published in more prestigious journals, with only quibbles. Ratings are a highly subjective opinion, and subject to revision at any time. If you think this paper has been incorrectly rated, please let me know.

This review of a half dozen good quality tests of four popular orthopedic (“carpentry”) surgeries found that none of them were more effective than a placebo. It’s an eyebrow-raiser that Louw et al could find only six good (controlled) trials of orthopedic surgeries, and all of them were bad news.

Surgeries have always been surprisingly based on tradition, authority, and educated guessing rather than good scientific trials; as they are tested properly, compared to a placebo (a sham surgery), many are failing the test. This review introduction is excellent, and does a great job of explaining the problem. As of 2016, this is the best single academic citation to support the claim that “sham surgery has shown to be just as effective as actual surgery in reducing pain and disability.” The need for placebo-controlled trials of surgeries (and the damning results) is explored in much greater detail — and more readably — in the excellent book, Surgery: The ultimate placebo, by Ian Harris.

The surgeries that failed their tests were:

~ Paul Ingraham

original abstract

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the evidence for the effectiveness of sham surgery in orthopedics by conducting a systematic review of literature.

METHODS: Systematic searches were conducted on Biomed Central,, CINAHL, the Cochrane Library, NLM Central Gateway, OVID, ProQuest (Digital Dissertations), PsycInfo, PubMed/Medline, ScienceDirect and Web of Science. Secondary searching (PEARLing) was undertaken, whereby reference lists of the selected articles were reviewed for additional references not identified in the primary search. All randomized controlled trials comparing surgery versus sham surgery in orthopedics were included. «Shockingly few!» Data were extracted and methodological quality was assessed by two reviewers using the Critical Review Form-Quantitative Studies. Levels of scientific evidence, based on the direction of outcomes of the trials, were established following the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Hierarchy of Evidence (Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, 1999).

RESULTS: This review includes six randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving 277 subjects. All six studies were rated as very good on methodological quality. Heterogeneity across the studies, with respect to participants, interventions evaluated, and outcome measures used, prevented meta-analyses. Narrative synthesis of results, based on effect size, demonstrated that sham surgery in orthopedics was as effective as actual surgery in reducing pain and improving disability.

CONCLUSIONS: This review suggests that sham surgery has shown to be just as effective as actual surgery in reducing pain and disability; however, care should be taken to generalize findings because of the limited number of studies.

related content

These fifteen articles on cite Louw 2016 as a source:

This page is part of the PainScience BIBLIOGRAPHY, which contains plain language summaries of thousands of scientific papers & others sources. It’s like a highly specialized blog. A few highlights: