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Placebo or Simply Positive Thinking

Take Home Points

  1. When labeled the medication, a placebo worked as well as a placebo in migraines.
  2. When labeled a placebo, improvements were near 50%.

Yesterday, I got back to my roots and listened to a Science Friday Podcast. This specific podcast had a grand interview with one of the researcher’s from this recent study: Altered placebo and drug labeling changes the outcome of episodic migraine attacks.

This article had 66 subjects with episodic migraines. On the first session, the patients simply sat through their migraine while their symptoms were monitored. Then, the subjects underwent 6 sessions, three where they received a migraine medication (10-mg rizatriptan) or a placebo. During the three conditions, the treatment (rizatriptan or a placebo) was labeled as:
  1. Placebo
  2. Maxalt (Rizatriptan) or placebo
  3. Maxalt
Now, the results were quite staggering, as simply receiving a pill and believing it was the medication resulted in similar improvements, no matter if it was in fact the medication or a placebo! 

Another note, the even when accurately informed of taking a placebo, accounted for more than 50% of the drug effect. 

Now, these results don’t imply simply believing in a medication will cause improvement for all cases. But, it does highlight some concerns about medication prescriptions in conditions which are purely subjective (pain, dizziness, etc.). Clearly, the power of positive though is involved in this scenario, but more research is needed! Nonetheless, believe in your treatments for maximal improvement, no matter what!

  1. Kam-Hansen S, Jakubowski M, Kelley JM, Kirsch I, Hoaglin DC, Kaptchuk TJ, Burstein R. Altered placebo and drug labeling changes the outcome of episodic migraine attacks. Sci Transl Med. 2014 Jan 8;6(218):218ra5. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3006175.