How the Mind Affects Surgery
By David Servan-Shreiber, Ode Magazine
Surgery, the glory of Western medicine, is ultimately technological. Perfect sterility must preside; every move is calculated, codified and monitored by machines as efficient as they are relentless. Nevertheless, the achievements of the last 50 years—from microsurgery of the hand to heart transplants and hip replacements—have changed the patient into a passive object of scientific inquiry and the surgeon’s dexterity. Once patients have agreed to an operation, how can they conceive of themselves as active participants, especially when they experience surgery under general anesthesia?
Although that question seems absurd to the majority of surgeons—and patients—a revolution is underway. Scientific studies are beginning to show what some observers have long suspected: The patient’s attitude and mental preparation play a major role in the way the body responds to that “well-intentioned aggression” we call surgery.
Although we don’t yet know why this is so, it has now been demonstrated that explanations about the nature of the operation and about what the patient should expect reduce blood loss and complications during and after operations. Instruction in relaxation and training in hypnosis to condition the body’s response during the operation contribute to this effect, also reducing post-operative pain and even the length of hospital stays.
The most surprising impact of all has come from the hypnotic suggestions whispered via headphones to patients under anesthesia. A study has demonstrated that several days after an operation, nurses were able to identify 80 percent of the patients who had received this intervention—because they recovered more quickly and experienced less pain than those who had not.
A surgeon tells the story of a patient whose friends had said a prayer over a stone they had all held in their hands. The stone was meant to remain with the woman during surgery, to bring her good luck. When the surgeon noticed that the stone was nowhere to be seen, he delayed the operation until it was found. Questioned about his decision, he answered simply, “When I operate, I need all the help I can get.”
Even if the conclusions reached by these studies remain controversial, is it reasonable to deprive patients of help that is not only harmless but so potentially beneficial?