Background There is considerable controversy regarding the effectiveness of extracorporeal shock wave therapy in the management of plantar heel pain. Our aim was to conduct a systematic review of randomised controlled trials to investigate the effectiveness of extracorporeal shock wave therapy and to produce a precise estimate of the likely benefits of this therapy. Methods We conducted a systematic review of all randomised controlled trials (RCTs) identified from the Cochrane Controlled trials register, MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL from 1966 until September 2004. We included randomised trials which evaluated extracorporeal shock wave therapy used to treat plantar heel pain. Trials comparing extra corporeal shock wave therapy with placebo or different doses of extra corporeal shock wave therapy were considered for inclusion in the review. We independently applied the inclusion and exclusion criteria to each identified randomised controlled trial, extracted data and assessed the methodological quality of each trial. Results Six RCTs (n = 897) permitted a pooled estimate of effectiveness based on pain scores collected using 10 cm visual analogue scales for morning pain. The estimated weighted mean difference was 0.42 (95% confidence interval 0.02 to 0.83) representing less than 0.5 cm on a visual analogue scale. There was no evidence of heterogeneity and a fixed effects model was used. Conclusion A meta-analysis of data from six randomised-controlled trials that included a total of 897 patients was statistically significant in favour of extracorporeal shock wave therapy for the treatment of plantar heel pain but the effect size was very small. A sensitivity analysis including only high quality trials did not detect a statistically significant effect
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