The 'placebo effect' in the conservative treatment of plantar fasciitis: a systematic review and meta-analyses

EFORT Open Rev. 2023 Oct 3;8(10):719-730. doi: 10.1530/EOR-23-0082.


Purpose: The study of the placebo effect is key to elucidate the 'real effect' of conservative interventions for plantar fasciitis. The aim of this meta-analysis was to quantify the impact of placebo in the different conservative treatments of plantar fasciitis.

Methods: A systematic literature review was performed on double-blind placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) according to PRISMA guidelines on PubMed, Embase, and Web of Science. The meta-analysis primary outcome was the 0-10 pain variation after placebo treatments analyzed at 1 week, 1, 3, 6, and 12 months. The risk of bias was assessed using the RoB 2.0 tool, while the overall quality of evidence was graded according to the GRADE guidelines.

Results: The placebo effect for conservative treatments was studied in 42 double-blind RCTs on 1724 patients. The meta-analysis of VAS pain showed a statistically significant improvement after placebo administration of 2.13/10 points (P < 0.001), being highest at 12 months with 2.79/10 points (P < 0.001). The improvement of the placebo groups was higher in the extracorporeal shock wave therapy studies compared to the injection studies (2.59 vs 1.78; P = 0.05). Eight studies had a low risk of bias, 23 studies had 'some concerns,' and 4 studies had a high risk of bias. The GRADE evaluation showed an overall high quality of evidence.

Conclusion: This systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrated that the placebo effect represents an important component of all conservative approaches to treat plantar fasciitis. This effect is statistically and clinically significant, increases over time, and depends on the type of conservative treatment applied to address plantar fasciitis.

Keywords: conservative treatment; heel pain; placebo; plantar fasciitis.