Can insights from placebo and nocebo mechanisms studies improve the randomized controlled trial?
Background and aims The randomized controlled trial (RCT) is currently facing several challenges, one of these being that the placebo response appears to be increasing in RCTs, thereby making it difficult to demonstrate an effect of potentially new treatments over placebo. This problem has primarily been approached by predicting the magnitude of the placebo response via stable factors, such as demographic variables, and/or by developing complex designs aimed at reducing the placebo response in the hope that it will improve the test of the active treatment. Yet, the success of this approach has so far been limited. Methods A new approach toward improving the RCT is put forward based on placebo and nocebo mechanism studies, i.e. studies that investigate the mechanisms underlying placebo analgesia and nocebo hyperalgesia. In a series of meta-analyses the magnitude of placebo and nocebo effects were determined. Experimental studies across nociplastic and neuropathic pain conditions and across pharmacological and acupuncture treatments investigated psychological and neurobiological mechanisms underlying these effects. The obtained results were used to make approximations of expectations to see if that could predict the placebo response in RCTs and function as a new way of tapping into the placebo component of treatment effects. Results The magnitude of placebo and nocebo effects is large and highly variable. Placebo effects exist across chronic pain conditions with varying degrees of known etiology as well as across pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments. Patients’ perception of the treatment, the verbal suggestions given for pain relief, and the patients’ expectations toward pain relief contribute to the magnitude of the placebo effect and to pain relief following placebo interventions. Also, unintentional unblinding and patients’ perception of a treatment markedly influence the treatment outcome. By making approximations of expectations toward treatment effects it was possible to predict the magnitude of the placebo response in RCTs. Conclusions and implications The new approach of tapping into or directly asking patients about their perception and expectations toward a treatment, along with the account of the natural history of pain, has the potential to improve the information that can be obtained from RCTs. Thus, by interfacing insights from placebo and nocebo mechanism studies, it may be possible to enhance the information that can be obtained from RCTs and to account for a large part of the variability in the placebo component of the overall treatment effect. This approach has the potential to improve the scientific evaluation of treatments, as well as to illustrate how the effect of treatments can be optimized in clinical practice, which is the crux of evidence-based medicine.