Is a Placebo as Effective as Maxalt?

When the general media got hold of the study results about the efficacy of a placebo versus that of the triptan Maxalt, the reporting — and comments — inevitably became about thinking one’s way out of a migraine. Readers, and even some reporters, pointed out that of course a placebo works for migraine, but it wouldn’t work for a legitimate illness, like cancer or heart disease. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Starting from when we learn about it in grade school, the placebo effect gets oversimiplifed to: if you think a sugar pill is effective medicine, it will provide relief. The phenomenon is far more complicated than that. The placebo effect may have a positive-thinking element to it, but it also involves complex brain activity — in the physical brain, not the thinking mind — that’s only now starting to be understood. And it has shown to have an effect for all sorts of ailments, not just those that involve subjective reporting.

The placebo effect also involves information and patient empowerment, as Diana Lee explains in Placebo Effect & Migraine: What Does the Research Mean? It’s worth reading the entire insightful piece yourself, but here’s an excerpt:

Rather than demonstrating you can think your way out of experiencing the symptoms of a migraine attack, the results support the idea that how we talk about a treatment can increase the effectiveness of that treatment by 50 percent or more…. If we know a particular medication is likely to be effective for a migraine patient and couple that knowledge with a physician/patient discussion that empowers the patient with the same knowledge, this can only benefit patients.