In observational studies, patients’ treatment outcome expectations have been associated with better outcomes (ie, a placebo response), whereas concerns about adverse side effects have been associated with an in increase in the negative effects of treatments (ie, a nocebo response). Some randomized trials have suggested that communication from clinicians could affect the treatment outcomes by changing patients’ expectations.
To investigate whether treatment outcome expectations and reported adverse side effects could be affected by different briefing contents before a minimal acupuncture treatment in patients with chronic low back pain (CLBP).
This randomized single-blinded clinical trial was conducted among patients with CLBP at 1 outpatient clinic in Switzerland who had a pain intensity of at least 4 on a numeric rating scale from 0 to 10. Different recruitment channels were used to enroll patients. Data were collected from May 2016 to December 2017 and were analyzed from June to November 2018.
Patients were randomized to receive either a regular expectation briefing or a high expectation briefing (effectiveness) and either a regular adverse side effect briefing or an intense adverse side effect briefing (adverse side effect) in a 2 × 2 factorial design. The intervention (briefing sessions and written materials) was standardized and delivered before the acupuncture treatment, with additional booster informative emails provided during the 4-week, 8-session acupuncture course.
The primary end point was the patients’ expectations regarding the effectiveness of the acupuncture treatment (Expectation for Treatment Scale [ETS]) after the briefing and the subsequent pain intensity (numeric rating scale). The primary end point for the adverse side effect briefing was the adverse side effect score at the end of the acupuncture treatment, derived from session-by-session assessments of adverse side effects.
A total of 152 patients with CLBP (mean [SD] age, 39.54 [12.52] years; 100 [65.8%] women) were included. The estimated group difference (regular vs high) for the ETS was -0.16 (95% CI -0.81 to 0.50, P = .64), indicating no evidence for a difference between intervention groups. There was also no evidence for a difference in pain intensity at the end of the acupuncture treatment between the groups with different expectation briefings. The adverse side effects score in the group with the intense adverse side effect briefing were estimated to be 1.31 times higher (95% CI, 0.94 to 1.82; P = .11) than after a regular adverse side effect briefing, but the finding was not statistically significant.
In this study, suggestions regarding treatment benefits (placebo) and adverse side effects (nocebo) did not affect treatment expectations or adverse side effects. Information regarding adverse side effects might require more research to understand nocebo responses.
German Clinical Trials Register Identifier: DRKS00010191.