Safety, Tolerability, and Nocebo Phenomena During Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trials


Neuromodulation. 23(3):291-300, 2020 Apr.

Zis P; Shafique F; Hadjivassiliou M; Blackburn D; Venneri A; Iliodromiti S; Mitsikostas DD; Sarrigiannis PG.

The methodology used for the application of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is such that it may induce a placebo effect. Respectively, adverse events (AEs) can occur when using a placebo, a phenomenon called nocebo. The primary aim of our meta-analysis is to establish the nocebo phenomena during TMS. Safety and tolerability of TMS were also studied.

After a systematic Medline search for TMS randomized controlled trials (RCTs), we assessed the number of patients reporting at least one AE and the number of discontinuations because of AE in active and sham TMS groups.

Data were extracted from 93 RCTs. The overall pooled estimate of active TMS and placebo treated patients who discontinued treatment because of AEs was 2.5% (95% CI 1.9%-3.2%) and 2.7% (95% CI 2.0%-3.5%), respectively. The pooled estimate of active TMS and placebo treated patients experiencing at least one AE was 29.3% (95% CI 19.0%-22.6%) and 13.6% (95% CI 11.6%-15.8%), respectively, suggesting that the odds of experiencing an AE is 2.60 times higher (95% CI 1.75-3.86) in the active treatment group compared to placebo (p < 0.00001). The most common AE was headache, followed by dizziness. Secondary meta-analyses in depression and psychotic disorders showed that the odds of experiencing an AE is 3.98 times higher (95% CI 2.14-7.40) and 2.93 times higher (95% CI 1.41-6.07), respectively, in the active treatment groups compared to placebo.

TMS is a safe and well-tolerated intervention. Nocebo phenomena do occur during TMS treatment and should be acknowledged during clinical trial design and daily clinical practice.