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'Placebo Effect' May Be Common in Headache Treatment

Study Shows Many Patients Feel Better Even When Their Medicine Is Just a 'Dummy Pill'

Placebo Effect in Migraine Patients continued...

The placebo effect was highest for trials involving drug treatments given to children. Almost half (45%) of children in the placebo arms of these trials got better after taking the dummy pills, compared to 36% of adults.

The placebo effect was also greater in trials involving migraine patients, with almost 41% of these patients who got the sham treatments or no treatment recovering, compared to 34% of tension headache patients.

While the research suggests that patients who unknowingly take placebo pills have better outcomes than those who get no treatment at all, the researchers acknowledge that "a placebo cannot easily be prescribed in daily practice."

The research analysis appears in the June issue of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics.

Second Opinion

Chicago-based neurologist Merle Diamond, MD, who is managing director of the Diamond Headache Clinic, says she is not surprised by the findings.

"We don't really understand why, but placebo treatments do work," she says, adding that under certain circumstances dummy pills might have a place in clinical practice.

"Some people say they should never be prescribed, but I believe that if it works for someone there is little harm," she says. "There is still a lot we don't understand about headaches.

Diamond says non-drug approaches that were once considered alternative are now widely used because they work for many patients. These therapies include biofeedback, acupuncture, physical therapy, meditation, and even Tai Chi.

Likewise, simple lifestyle changes, such as eating regular meals, having a regular sleep schedule, avoiding trigger foods and limiting caffeine can help modify response to pain.

"I still see patients who drink coffee or other drinks with caffeine all day long and wonder why they can't sleep and are having headaches," she says. "Lifestyle is very important. It is important to fix what is fixable."

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