Placebo interventions for all clinical conditions

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(3):CD003974. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003974.pub2.


Background: Placebo interventions are often claimed to improve patient-reported and observer-reported outcomes, but this belief is not based on evidence from randomised trials that compare placebo with no treatment.

Objectives: To assess the effect of placebo interventions.

Search strategy: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library Issue 4, 2002), MEDLINE (1966 to 2002), EMBASE (1980 to 2002), Biological Abstracts (1986 to 2002), and PsycLIT (1887 to 2002). We contacted experts on placebo research, and read references in the included trials.

Selection criteria: We included randomised placebo trials with a no-treatment control group investigating any health problem.

Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently assessed trial quality and extracted data. We contacted study authors for additional information.

Main results: Outcome data were available in 156 out of 182 included trials, investigating 46 clinical conditions. We found no statistically significant pooled effect of placebo in 38 studies with binary outcomes (4284 patients), relative risk 0.95 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.89 to 1.01). The pooled relative risk for patient-reported outcomes was 0.95 (95% CI 0.88 to 1.03) and for observer-reported outcomes 0.91 (95% CI 0.81 to 1.03). There was heterogeneity (P=0.01) but the funnel plot was symmetrical. There was no statistically significant effect of placebo interventions in the four clinical conditions investigated in three trials or more: pain, nausea, smoking, and depression, but confidence intervals were wide. We found an overall effect of placebo treatments in 118 trials with continuous outcomes (7453 patients), standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.24 (95% CI -0.31 to -0.17). The SMD for patient-reported outcomes was -0.30 (95% CI -0.38 to -0.21), whereas no statistically significant effect was found for observer-reported outcomes, SMD -0.10 (95% CI -0.20 to -0.01). There was heterogeneity (P<0.001) and large variability in funnel plot results even for big trials. There was an apparent effect of placebo interventions on pain (SMD -0.25 (95% CI -0.35 to-0.16)), and phobia (SMD -0.63 (95% CI -1.17 to -0.08)); but also a substantial risk of bias. There was no statistically significant effect of placebo interventions in eight other clinical conditions investigated in three trials or more: nausea, smoking, depression, overweight, asthma, hypertension, insomnia and anxiety, but confidence intervals were wide.

Reviewers' conclusions: There was no evidence that placebo interventions in general have clinically important effects. A possible small effect on continuous patient-reported outcomes, especially pain, could not be clearly distinguished from bias.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Refusal to Treat
  • Treatment Outcome