Placebo Effect may be common in headache treatments

November 12, 2012

Placebo Effect may be common in headache treatments

If you suffer from migraine or tension headaches, you will know that you will try anything to ease the pain, be it regular medication or alternative.

There are many methods used to ease the pain of occasional or regular headaches including a variety of drugs, lifestyle changes and alternative methods and these are used on the more than 9 out of 10 people who suffer from head pain.

There are two types of headaches: one is the tension headache which 90% of people can suffer from. These headaches are caused by tension and they tend to start in the neck, upper back or other muscles.

Migraines may cause nausea, vomiting and the patient is sensitive to bright lights and sounds as well as pounding on one side of the head or in a particular area.

A study to examine the effects of a placebo on patients with headaches was carried out by researchers from Erasmus University in The Netherlands. It showed that the use of a placebo or no treatment seemed to work as well as drugs in the majority of patients taking part in more than 100 studies. Patients who were administered a placebo, which is really a fake pill, had improvement in their symptoms. The result of taking a placebo compared to drugs had a better outcome when weighed against studies carried out on the lifestyle of patients and other non-drug treatment.

Information gathered for this new analysis was gleaned from more than 7,000 migraine or tension headache sufferers who participated in 119 clinical trials of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical headache treatments.

From the children who had taken part and were taking a placebo, almost half (45%) recovered after taking the fake pills. This is in contrast to 36% of adults.

Trials carried out on migraine sufferers showed that the effect of the placebo was greater, about 41% of them who got the fake medication or no medication got better. This compares with 34% of patients with tension headaches.

The study implies patients who are unaware they are taking placebo medication appear to have a better recovery than those patients who do not receive any treatment, however 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.

Merle Diamond, MD, a neurologist working in Chicago and managing director of the Diamond Headache Clinic commented that the findings of the report were not surprising. “We don’t really understand why, but placebo treatments do work and 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”. Diamond acknowledges that we are lacking in our understanding of headaches but accepts that placebos, once considered alternative do work.

However she says, “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. Lifestyle is very important. It is important to fix what is fixable”.

Some of these alternative approaches include Tai Chi, biofeedback, acupuncture, physical therapy and meditation. Make some changes in your lifestyle to help ease the pain of tension headaches or migraines: stay away from foods you know could trigger a headache, reduce the amount of caffeine, eat healthily and have a regular sleep schedule.

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