Outcome data were available in 202 out of 234 included trials, investigating 60 clinical conditions. We regarded the risk of bias as low in only 16 trials (8%), five of which had binary outcomes.
In 44 studies with binary outcomes (6041 patients), there was moderate heterogeneity (P < 0.001; I2 45%) but no clear difference in effects between small and large trials (symmetrical funnel plot). The overall pooled effect of placebo was a relative risk of 0.93 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.88 to 0.99). The pooled relative risk for patient-reported outcomes was 0.93 (95% CI 0.86 to 1.00) and for observer-reported outcomes 0.93 (95% CI 0.85 to 1.02). We found no statistically significant effect of placebo interventions in four clinical conditions that had been investigated in three trials or more: pain, nausea, smoking, and depression, but confidence intervals were wide. The effect on pain varied considerably, even among trials with low risk of bias.
In 158 trials with continuous outcomes (10,525 patients), there was moderate heterogeneity (P < 0.001; I2 42%), and considerable variation in effects between small and large trials (asymmetrical funnel plot). It is therefore a questionable procedure to pool all the trials, and we did so mainly as a basis for exploring causes for heterogeneity. We found an overall effect of placebo treatments, standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.23 (95% CI -0.28 to -0.17). The SMD for patient-reported outcomes was -0.26 (95% CI -0.32 to -0.19), and for observer-reported outcomes, SMD -0.13 (95% CI -0.24 to -0.02). We found an effect on pain, SMD -0.28 (95% CI -0.36 to -0.19)); nausea, SMD -0.25 (-0.46 to -0.04)), asthma (-0.35 (-0.70 to -0.01)), and phobia (SMD -0.63 (95% CI -1.17 to -0.08)). The effect on pain was very variable, also among trials with low risk of bias. Four similarly-designed acupuncture trials conducted by an overlapping group of authors reported large effects (SMD -0.68 (-0.85 to -0.50)) whereas three other pain trials reported low or no effect (SMD -0.13 (-0.28 to 0.03)). The pooled effect on nausea was small, but consistent. The effects on phobia and asthma were very uncertain due to high risk of bias. There was no statistically significant effect of placebo interventions in the seven other clinical conditions investigated in three trials or more: smoking, dementia, depression, obesity, hypertension, insomnia and anxiety, but confidence intervals were wide.
Meta-regression analyses showed that larger effects of placebo interventions were associated with physical placebo interventions (e.g. sham acupuncture), patient-involved outcomes (patient-reported outcomes and observer-reported outcomes involving patient cooperation), small trials, and trials with the explicit purpose of studying placebo. Larger effects of placebo were also found in trials that did not inform patients about the possible placebo intervention.