Placebo is underrated.

Placebo effect is a curse for medical researchers. Every new treatment has to be shown to be better than placebo and placebo is often very effective. In clinical practice, unlike in research, placebo effect is a good thing, but many doctors fail to maximize its effect. If the doctor emphasizes all of the potential side effects and does not stress positive attributes of a drug, the patient is not likely to respond well. However, if the doctor is enthusiastic about the efficacy of a drug, the results can be dramatically different. Obviously, side effects need to be mentioned as well, but if the drug is really dangerous, it should not be prescribed in the first place.

The importance of placebo effect specifically with migraine drugs was described in a study published in Science Translational Medicine. The findings confirm that patients who receive positive messages about the potential efficacy of their treatment may have better treatment outcomes than patients who receive negative messages.

The study involved 66 migraine sufferers with intermittent attacks. Patients first recorded their baseline pain intensity on a scale from zero (no pain) to ten (maximal pain) for an untreated migraine attack. Then each study participant received a series of six envelopes containing treatment for six subsequent migraine attacks: two of the envelopes were labeled as “placebo”, two as “Maxalt” (rizatriptan, one of the the anti-migraine drugs called triptans) and two as “placebo or Maxalt.” However, for each pair of envelopes with identical labels, one envelope actually contained a placebo pill and the other contained Maxalt.

Patients who had taken Maxalt mislabeled as “placebo” reported roughly 50% less pain relief than those who had taken the Maxalt labeled as “Maxalt.” This suggests that more than half of the drug effect was due to the placebo effect.

The study was conducted by Rami Bursteine, Ted Kaptchuk, and other doctors at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Burstein said that labeling Maxalt as “placebo” likely reduced the effectiveness of Maxalt by giving patients negative expectations about the efficacy of the treatment. Similarly, he says, providing patients with a long list of possible side effects, risks, and adverse events in the context of prescribing a drug in clinical practice could give patients negative expectations, and therefore could potentially reduce drug efficacy, resulting in patients taking more drug.

Strikingly, the study also revealed that placebo treatment mislabeled as Maxalt was just as effective in reducing pain as Maxalt mislabeled as placebo. “No one’s ever seen that before in human history, in my knowledge,” Kaptchuk says, referring to the comparison. “It raises the possibility that the placebo effect can be harnessed directly.”

The improvement in symptoms that occurred in patients who knowingly took the placebo pill may have occurred because people often become conditioned to associate taking a pill with feeling better, although no one can explain why or how the placebo treatment works.

It is considered unethical for doctors to prescribe placebo, but they may want to consider first trying drugs that may not be the most effective, but are significantly safer than the stronger ones. One such example in my own practice pertains to the use of epilepsy drugs. Depakote (divalproex) and Topamax (topiramate) are approved by the FDA for the prevention of migraines, while Neurontin (gabapentin) is not. In fact, Neurontin is less effective, but it has significantly fewer side effects. Also, Neurontin is not dangerous if the patient were to get pregnant, while the other two drugs are.

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