Use of placebo controls in the evaluation of surgery: systematic review.

K. Wartolowska, A. Judge, S. Hopewell, G.S. Collins, B.J. Dean, I. Rombach, D. Brindley, J. Savulescu, D.J. Beard, A.J. Carr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


To investigate whether placebo controls should be used in the evaluation of surgical interventions.Systematic review.We searched Medline, Embase, and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register from their inception to November 2013.Randomised clinical trials comparing any surgical intervention with placebo. Surgery was defined as any procedure that both changes the anatomy and requires a skin incision or use of endoscopic techniques.Three reviewers (KW, BJFD, IR) independently identified the relevant trials and extracted data on study details, outcomes, and harms from included studies.In 39 out of 53 (74%) trials there was improvement in the placebo arm and in 27 (51%) trials the effect of placebo did not differ from that of surgery. In 26 (49%) trials, surgery was superior to placebo but the magnitude of the effect of the surgical intervention over that of the placebo was generally small. Serious adverse events were reported in the placebo arm in 18 trials (34%) and in the surgical arm in 22 trials (41.5%); in four trials authors did not specify in which arm the events occurred. However, in many studies adverse events were unrelated to the intervention or associated with the severity of the condition. The existing placebo controlled trials investigated only less invasive procedures that did not involve laparotomy, thoracotomy, craniotomy, or extensive tissue dissection.Placebo controlled trial is a powerful, feasible way of showing the efficacy of surgical procedures. The risks of adverse effects associated with the placebo are small. In half of the studies, the results provide evidence against continued use of the investigated surgical procedures. Without well designed placebo controlled trials of surgery, ineffective treatment may continue unchallenged.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)g3253
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2014

Bibliographical note

M1 - Electronic


  • Humans
  • Placebos
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


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