Wristbands Ease Chemo-Related Nausea

Placebo Effect May Explain Relief From Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 29, 2003
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 29, 2003 -- Wristbands may help ease the discomfort of chemotherapy-related nausea for people undergoing cancer treatment, especially if patients expect them to help.

A new study shows anti-nausea wristbands commonly used to treat motion sickness, seasickness, and morning sickness from pregnancy can also provide modest relief from nausea caused by chemotherapy. Chemotherapy-related nausea is a frequent side effect of cancer treatment.

But researchers say the results are likely due to the placebo effect, which is an improvement caused by patient expectations.

"A large number of patients who wore pressure bands found them to be quite helpful," says researcher Joseph Roscoe, PhD, research assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in a news release. "But we think that the effect of the pressure bands was primarily a placebo effect. It appeared that the bands themselves did little or nothing, just as a placebo pill does nothing by itself."

Effect Depends on Expectations

Researchers compared the effects of two different types of anti-nausea wristbands on 700 cancer patients, mostly women undergoing breast cancer treatment.

Each of the patients received acupressure bands that apply steady pressure to an acupuncture point on the inside of the wrist, an acustimulation band that gives a mild electrical pulse to the same point, or no band at all.

The participants wore the wristbands on the day of their chemotherapy and for four days after treatment.

Researchers found patients who wore the acupressure wristbands reported 15% less chemotherapy-related nausea on the day of treatment compared with those who didn't wear any wristband. But there were no significant differences in post-chemotherapy nausea in the following four days among the three groups.

When researchers looked at the results more closely, they found that the degree of relief provided by the acupressure wristbands was linked to patient expectations.

Those who expected the bands to work rated their chemotherapy nausea as 25% less severe than other patients on the day of treatment and 13% less severe on the days that followed. They also reported a better quality of life during this period.

In contrast, patients who did not expect the acupressure bands to work didn't report any benefits.

Among those patients who wore the acustimulation band, men but not women reported less nausea on the day of chemotherapy and less nausea and vomiting overall. But researchers say too few men (55) were involved in the study to draw any real conclusions about the band's effectiveness.

Even though the effectiveness of the wristbands in relieving nausea caused by chemotherapy was mild and likely due to the placebo effect, researchers say they still may be helpful for some patients.

"I think every physician understands that what your patient believes will happen is important. Most physicians try to set up as positive an expectancy as possible while still being realistic," says Roscoe. "It's good for the patient if you can make use of the placebo effect."

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SOURCES: Roscoe, J. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, August 2003; vol 26: pp 731-742. News release, University of Rochester Medical Center.

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