The surprise: Patients’ reports of pain relief more than doubled when they were told the migraine drug was real than when they were told, falsely, that it was a fake, the team reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
In fact, people reported nearly as much pain relief when they took a placebo that they thought was the real drug as they did when they took the migraine drug while believing it was a fake.
“The more we gave a positive message to the patient, the bigger the placebo effect was,” Kaptchuk said.
He said that effect probably isn’t purely psychological, saying the ritual of taking a medication may trigger some subconscious memory that could leave people feeling better even if they knew they’d taken a fake drug.
Scientists have long known that some people report noticeable improvements in pain and certain other symptoms when they’re given a placebo, which can be a sugar pill or sham surgery or some other benign intervention. Some studies even have documented that a placebo actually can spark a biological effect.
But scientists don’t know why the placebo effect works or how to harness its potential benefit.
The new research is an interesting attempt to answer some of those questions, at least for one kind of pain, said Dr. Mark Stacy, vice dean for clinical research at Duke University Medical Center, who wasn’t involved with the work. And learning how much of an impact it makes could help design better studies of new drugs, to ensure the phenomenon doesn’t skew the results, he added.
For now, it shows “the power of positive thinking may be helpful in taking care of your migraine,” he said.