Imperfect placebos are common in low back pain trials: A systematic review of the literature

L. A C Machado, S. J. Kamper, R. D. Herbert, C. G. Maher, J. H. McAuley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The placebo is an important tool to blind patients to treatment allocation and therefore minimise some sources of bias in clinical trials. However, placebos that are improperly designed or implemented may introduce bias into trials. The purpose of this systematic review was to evaluate the adequacy of placebo interventions used in low back pain trials. Electronic databases were searched systematically for randomised placebo-controlled trials of conservative interventions for low back pain. Trial selection and data extraction were performed by two reviewers independently. A total of 126 trials using over 25 different placebo interventions were included. The strategy most commonly used to enhance blinding was the provision of structurally equivalent placebos. Adequacy of blinding was assessed in only 13% of trials. In 20% of trials the placebo intervention was a potentially genuine treatment. Most trials that assessed patients' expectations showed that the placebo generated lower expectations than the experimental intervention. Taken together, these results demonstrate that imperfect placebos are common in low back pain trials; a result suggesting that many trials provide potentially biased estimates of treatment efficacy. This finding has implications for the interpretation of published trials and the design of future trials. Implementation of strategies to facilitate blinding and balance expectations in randomised groups need a higher priority in low back pain research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)889-904
Number of pages16
JournalEuropean Spine Journal
Volume17
Issue number7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2008
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Blinding
  • Expectation
  • Low back pain
  • Systematic review
  • Trial methodology

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