A Placebo-controlled study is a way of testing a medical therapy in which, in addition to a group of subjects that receives the treatment to be evaluated, a separate control group receives a sham “placebo” treatment which is specifically designed to have no real effect. Placebos are most commonly used in blinded trials, where subjects do not know whether they are receiving real or placebo treatment. Often, there is also a further “natural history” group that does not receive any treatment at all.
The purpose of the placebo group is to account for the placebo effect, that is, effects from treatment that do not depend on the treatment itself. Such factors include knowing one is receiving a treatment, attention from health care professionals, and the expectations of a treatment’s effectiveness by those running the research study. Without a placebo group to compare against, it is not possible to know whether the treatment itself had any effect.