Although adjunctive treatment with modern antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) is standard care in refractory epilepsy, it is unclear how much of the effect can be attributed directly to the AEDs and how much to the beneficial changes seen with placebo. Therefore, we performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of the evidence to determine the placebo-corrected net efficacy of adjunctive treatment with modern AEDs on the market for refractory epilepsy. Of 317 potentially eligible articles reviewed in full text, 124 (39%) fulfilled eligibility criteria. After excluding 69 publications, 55 publications of 54 studies in 11,106 adults and children with refractory epilepsy form the basis of evidence. The overall weighted pooled-risk difference in favor of AEDs over placebo for seizure-freedom in the total sample of adults and children was 6% [95% confidence interval (CI) 4–8, z = 6.47, p < 0.001] and 21% (95% CI 19–24, z = 17.13, p < 0.001) for 50% seizure reduction. Although the presence of moderate heterogeneity may reduce the validity of the results and limit generalizations from the findings, we conclude that the placebo-corrected efficacy of adjunctive treatment with modern AEDs is disappointingly small and suggest that better strategies of finding drugs are needed for refractory epilepsy, which is a major public health problem.