Increasing placebo responses over time in U.S. clinical trials of neuropathic pain

Pain. 2015 Dec;156(12):2616-2626. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000333.


Recent failures of clinical trials of novel analgesics designed to treat neuropathic pain have led to much speculation about the underlying reasons. One often discussed possibility is that the placebo response in these trials has increased in recent years, leading to lower separation between the drug and placebo arms. Whether this has indeed occurred has not yet been adequately addressed. Here, we extracted data from published randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of drugs for the treatment of chronic neuropathic pain over the years 1990 to 2013. We find that placebo responses have increased considerably over this period, but drug responses have remained stable, leading to diminished treatment advantage. This trend has been driven by studies conducted in the United States. Consideration of participant and study characteristics revealed that in the United States but not elsewhere, RCTs have increased in study size and length. These changes are associated with larger placebo response. Analysis of individual RCT time courses showed different kinetics for the treatment vs placebo responses, with the former evolving more quickly than the latter and plateauing, such that maximum treatment advantage was achieved within 4 weeks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Pain / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Neuralgia / drug therapy*
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • United States


  • Analgesics