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Objective To explore participants’ experience in placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials (RCTs) specifically in relationship to their expectations. Background Aspects of being in RCTs, such as informed consent, perception of benefit and understanding of randomization, have been examined. In contrast, little is known concerning the formation of patient expectations before and during trials. Methods Qualitative methods using in-depth interviews with a semi-structured interview guide of nine patients from four different RCTs. Data analysis was conducted using a codebook format arranging participant responses under broad analytical headings. The interviewer used a semi-structured interview guide to direct the conversation from one broad topic to the next within the context of the ongoing conversation. A checklist of topics encouraged participants to describe their experiences in RCTs. Narratives concerning expectation, blinding and placebo were compared to identify common themes. Results Patient anticipatory processes were influenced and modified both before and during the trial from multiple inputs. Such factors as past experiences in RCTs, past experiences of ineffective treatment, stress of being off regular medications, fear of being a ‘placebo responder’, input of non-study doctors or other health professionals, the experience of other participants, measurements of health parameters made during the trial and the presence or absence of side-effects all affected patient expectation. Conclusion Expectations in RCTs are not fixed and instead may be viewed as continuously shaped by multiple inputs that include experience and information received both before and during the trial. Variability in placebo response observed in previous studies may be related to the fluid nature of expectations. Trying to control and equalize expectations in RCTs may be more difficult than previously assumed.
Objective To investigate whether a sham device (a validated sham acupuncture needle) has a greater placebo effect than an inert pill in patients with persistent arm pain. Design A single blind randomised controlled trial created from the two week placebo run-in periods for two nested trials that compared acupuncture and amitriptyline with their respective placebo controls. Comparison of participants who remained on placebo continued beyond the run-in period to the end of the study. Setting Academic medical centre. Participants 270 adults with arm pain due to repetitive use that had lasted at least three months despite treatment and who scored ≥3 on a 10 point pain scale. Interventions Acupuncture with sham device twice a week for six weeks or placebo pill once a day for eight weeks. Main outcomemeasures Arm pain measured on a 10 point pain scale. Secondary outcomes were symptoms measured by the Levine symptom severity scale, function measured by Pransky's upper extremity function scale, and grip strength. Results Pain decreased during the two week placebo run-in period in both the sham device and placebo pill groups, but changes were not different between the groups (−0.14, 95% confidence interval −0.52 to 0.25, P = 0.49). Changes in severity scores for arm symptoms and grip strength were similar between groups, but arm function improved more in the placebo pill group (2.0, 0.06 to 3.92, P = 0.04). Longitudinal regression analyses that followed participants throughout the treatment period showed significantly greater downward slopes per week on the 10 point arm pain scale in the sham device group than in the placebo pill group (−0.33 (−0.40 to −0.26) v −0.15 (−0.21 to −0.09), P = 0.0001) and on the symptom severity scale (−0.07 (−0.09 to −0.05) v −0.05 (−0.06 to −0.03), P = 0.02). Differences were not significant, however, on the function scale or for grip strength. Reported adverse effects were different in the two groups. Conclusions The sham device had greater effects than the placebo pill on self reported pain and severity of symptoms over the entire course of treatment but not during the two week placebo run in. Placebo effects seem to be malleable and depend on the behaviours embedded in medical rituals.