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Popular Shoulder Surgery Is No Better Than Placebo

Comparing a common shoulder surgery for impingement to sham surgery demonstrated no difference in pain levels after six months.
Popular Shoulder Surgery Is No Better Than Placebo
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As people get older, they may suffer from chronic shoulder pain. Other than a torn rotator cuff, one type of pain is brought on by bone spurs rubbing on soft tissue such as rotator cuff tendons. This condition is termed shoulder impingement, and frequently makes motions like lifting an object off a high shelf very painful. Orthopedic surgeons often recommend shoulder surgery called subacromial decompression for shoulder impingement.

How Well Does This Shoulder Surgery Work?

Arthroscopic surgery allows for minimally invasive removal of the impinging bone. That seems promising, but British researchers wondered how effective it is. They randomly assigned roughly 300 patients with chronic shoulder pain to this type of shoulder surgery, sham surgery or no surgery (Beard et al, The Lancet, Jan 27, 2018).

Six months later, they asked patients about their level of pain. There was no difference between those who had undergone actual surgery or sham surgery.

What Can Patients Do Instead of Shoulder Surgery?

The researchers conclude that their results call into question the value of this popular operation. They suspect that the physical therapy following surgery might have contributed to the benefit patients reported. Instead of shoulder surgery, patients may wish to consider physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication or topical liniments for pain relief.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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