The surprising power of placebo healed the broken backs

February 15, 2014  16:22

Placebos, as we know, are dummy pills. They can’t do anything real. After all, there’s nothing in them, Daily Mail reports.

At least, that’s what we thought.

But in recent years, evidence has built up to suggest that placebos can be highly effective – particularly in treating pain, depression, and even alleviating some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

The key is simply that you think it might help you.

Dr David Kallmes is a successful radiologist at the Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s leading hospitals – it’s where the Presidents of the United States often get treated.

For the past 15 years, he’s been fixing broken backs by injecting them with a special kind of medical cement.

Dr Kallmes regularly performed the procedure – called vertebroplasty – and found it hugely effective.

Occasionally, people in need of vertebroplasty had the wrong vertebra filled with cement.

And yet it still worked.

Dr Kallmes decided to do something very unusual: he decided to conduct an experiment to see whether vertebroplasty was any more effective than a placebo.

He designed a trial in which some patients would be given genuine vertebroplasty, and some would be given a placebo.

But in this case the placebo couldn’t be a dummy pill, it would have to be a fake operation.

It was important that the 130 patients on the trial didn’t know whether they were having the real thing or the placebo.

All patients were prepared for their ‘operation’ in the same way; they were wheeled into theatre, and given a local anaesthetic in their back.

'In both cases,' says Kallmes, 'No matter how they were randomised [i.e. which operation they were having, the real or the fake], we then opened the cement, which has a very strong odour like nail polish remover, to really simulate it for everybody in the room.'

For Bonnie Anderson, one of the patients on the trial, it would have seemed impossible that play-acting could give her the relief she needed.

After slipping in her kitchen, she’d cracked a vertebra and was in immense pain, barely able to move.

'Within a week….I was able to play golf.', she said.

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