Medication-attributed adverse effects in placebo groups: implications for assessment of adverse effects

Arch Intern Med. 2006 Jan 23;166(2):155-60. doi: 10.1001/archinte.166.2.155.


Medication-attributed adverse effects are a frequent reason for poor compliance in practice and in clinical studies and are also common in patients receiving placebo. The occurrence of adverse effects in placebo groups can clarify the assessment of adverse event reporting. We analyzed data from randomized, placebo-controlled trials of statin drugs published since 1992 with sample sizes larger than 100 subjects. Reports of adverse effects and discontinuation rates in placebo groups were evaluated. We compared data on adverse effect profiles in placebo groups between trials and with expected rates from population-based studies. We also sought to determine the range of adverse effect ascertainment methods used in different studies. Methods of ascertainment of adverse events varied widely across studies. Overall, 4% to 26% of patients in the control groups of large trials of statin drugs discontinued placebo use because of perceived adverse effects. The symptom rate in placebo groups varied substantially across trials (up to a ratio of 13:1 for possibly drug-related symptoms, eg, headache, 0.2%-2.7%, or abdominal pain, 0.9%-3.9%) and were often markedly lower than those found in the general population (eg, fatigue, 1.9%-3.4%) in trials of statin drugs vs 17.7% in the general population. In conclusion, the widely varying rates of adverse effects reported by patients taking placebo and the high prevalence of such symptoms in the general population should be considered by both trialists and clinicians. In addition, variability of adverse effect ascertainment is considerable and suggests the need for better standardization in research.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Drug Reaction Reporting Systems
  • Anticholesteremic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypercholesterolemia / drug therapy*
  • Male
  • Placebos / adverse effects*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Anticholesteremic Agents
  • Placebos