WASHINGTON — A quirky new study suggests patients' expectations can make a big difference in how they feel after treatment for a migraine.
Boston researchers recruited 66 migraine patients in an attempt to quantify how much of their pain relief came from a medication and how much was due to the healing power of positive belief.
More than 450 headaches later, the researchers reported Wednesday that it's important for doctors to carefully choose what they tell patients about their medicine.
"Every word you say counts, not only every gram of the medication," said Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk, who led the new study.
Here's how it worked: First, the patients who suffer regular migraines agreed to forgo pain relievers during one attack, recording their symptoms for comparison with later headaches.
Then for each of their next six migraines, the patients were given a different pill with a different message. Sometimes they were told it was an effective migraine drug named rizatriptan, a positive message. Other times they were told it was a placebo. Other times they were told the pill could be either one, a neutral message.
Sometimes the doctor's message was true — patients were told they got rizatriptan and they really did. Sometimes it was false.
Of course, the real migraine drug worked far better than the dummy pill.
The surprise: Patients' reports of pain relief more than doubled when they were told that the migraine drug was real, compared with when they were told, falsely, that it was a fake, the team reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.