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1.  How large are the nonspecific effects of acupuncture? A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials 
BMC Medicine  2010;8:75.
While several recent large randomized trials found clinically relevant effects of acupuncture over no treatment or routine care, blinded trials comparing acupuncture to sham interventions often reported only minor or no differences. This raises the question whether (sham) acupuncture is associated with particularly potent nonspecific effects. We aimed to investigate the size of nonspecific effects associated with acupuncture interventions.
MEDLINE, Embase, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Clinical Trials and reference lists were searched up to April 2010 to identify randomized trials of acupuncture for any condition, including both sham and no acupuncture control groups. Data were extracted by one reviewer and verified by a second. Pooled standardized mean differences were calculated using a random effects model with the inverse variance method.
Thirty-seven trials with a total of 5754 patients met the inclusion criteria. The included studies varied strongly regarding patients, interventions, outcome measures, methodological quality and effect sizes reported. Among the 32 trials reporting a continuous outcome measure, the random effects standardized mean difference between sham acupuncture and no acupuncture groups was -0.45 (95% confidence interval, -0.57, -0.34; I2 = 54%; Egger's test for funnel plot asymmetry, P = 0.25). Trials with larger effects of sham over no acupuncture reported smaller effects of acupuncture over sham intervention than trials with smaller nonspecific effects (β = -0.39, P = 0.029).
Sham acupuncture interventions are often associated with moderately large nonspecific effects which could make it difficult to detect small additional specific effects. Compared to inert placebo interventions, effects associated with sham acupuncture might be larger, which would have considerable implications for the design and interpretation of clinical trials.
PMCID: PMC3001416  PMID: 21092261
2.  Frequency and circumstances of placebo use in clinical practice - a systematic review of empirical studies 
BMC Medicine  2010;8:15.
The use of placebo interventions outside clinical trials is ethically, professionally and legally controversial. Little is known about the frequency and circumstances of placebo use in clinical practice. Our aim was to summarize the available empirical studies addressing these issues.
We searched PubMed and EMBASE from inception to July 2009 in order to identify cross-sectional surveys, qualitative or longitudinal studies among health care professionals, students or patients which investigated at least one of the following issues - frequency of placebo use or attitudes to, or motivations for, the use of placebo interventions. At least two reviewers extracted information on the study methods, participants and findings. Descriptive summaries were prepared in an iterative process by at least two reviewers per study.
Twenty-two studies from 12 different countries met the inclusion criteria. Most studies had relevant shortcomings. The proportion of respondents reporting that they had applied 'pure' placebos (for example, saline injection) during their professional life varied between 17% and 80% among physicians and between 51% and 100% among nurses, but it seems that the actual frequency of such use seems to be rare. The use of 'impure' or 'active' placebos (for example, antibiotics for viral infections) is likely to be much more frequent. However, it is impossible to make a reliable estimation because there is no agreement of what an impure placebo might be. Studies using qualitative methods or asking participants to judge case examples suggest that motivations and attitudes towards placebo use are complex and health care providers are often faced with a dilemma.
Although the available evidence is incomplete and confusing at times there can be little doubt that the prevalence of placebo use outside of clinical trials is not negligible and that views and attitudes on placebos use differ considerably among individuals, both health care professionals and patients. Further research is needed to clarify these issues.
PMCID: PMC2837612  PMID: 20178561
3.  Evidence for placebo effects on physical but not on biochemical outcome parameters: a review of clinical trials 
BMC Medicine  2007;5:3.
Recent reviews on placebo effects in clinical trials suggest that objective changes following placebo treatments may not exist or, at least, have been considerably overestimated. However, the possibility that yet unidentified subsets of parameters are responsive to placebo treatments has not been taken into account. Therefore, the aim of the present study is to examine the effects of placebo treatments on objectively measured outcome parameters by specifically focusing on peripheral disease processes.
An initial dataset was collected from a MEDLINE search for placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials. Trials with stable disease conditions were identified, and the effects of placebo treatments on peripheral outcome parameters were estimated by the changes from baseline in the placebo groups. An explorative data analysis was conducted in order to identify parameter classes with differential responsiveness to placebo treatments. A subgroup meta-analysis of a second dataset was performed to test whether the preliminary classification would also apply to placebo effects derived from the comparison of placebo groups with untreated control groups.
The explorative analysis of outcome parameters and strength of placebo effects yielded a classification into responsive "physical" versus non-responsive "biochemical" parameters. In total, 50% of trials measuring physical parameters showed significant placebo effects, compared with 6% of trials measuring biochemical parameters. A subgroup meta-analysis substantiated the differential response (physical parameters: n = 14, Hedges' pooled effect size g = 0.34, 95% CI 0.22 to 0.46; biochemical parameters: n = 15, g = 0.03, 95% CI -0.04 to 0.10). The subanalysis of the second dataset supported the classification and revealed a significant improvement for physical parameters (n = 20, g = 0.22, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.36) and a deterioration for biochemical parameters (n = 6, g = -0.17, 95% CI -0.31 to -0.02).
The results suggest that placebo interventions can improve physical disease processes of peripheral organs more easily and effectively than biochemical processes. This differential response offers a good starting point for theoretical considerations on possible mediating mechanisms, and for future investigations in this field.
PMCID: PMC1847831  PMID: 17371590

Results 1-3 (3)