As long as there have been migraines, there have been people desperate for relief. The pain, nausea, sensitivity and auras that can accompany the mother of all headaches is typically debilitating and can last for days.

Researchers working on migraine treatments have come up with a number of potential remedies – from high-tech zapping gizmos to miracle magnets – as well as medications, but many migraine sufferers find little relief from the available options.

But now a new study from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital suggests that there may be a novel way to boost the efficacy of migraine medication: the power of positive thinking.

Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk and his team recruited 66 migraine patients to determine how much pain relief comes from a medication versus how much comes from the placebo effect. They discovered that what doctors tell their patients about a medication has a powerful effect in either enhancing or diminishing its benefits.

"Every word you say counts, not only every gram of the medication," said Kaptchuk.

The participants were asked to skip pain relievers during a migraine and record their symptoms for later reference. During the next six migraines, they were given a different pill in an envelope with a description. They were told that the pill was either a powerful migraine drug called rizatriptan, a placebo, or that it could be either one – in effect, a positive message, a negative message, and a neutral one.

With some of the pills, the message was true, but with others, the message was false and accompanied a pill other than described.

In the end, they found that rizatriptan worked better than the placebo. But surprisingly, patients who were told that the drug was real reported double the pain relief than those who were told, falsely, that the drug was fake. And in fact, when participants took a placebo and were told that is was the real drug, they reported nearly as much pain relief as they did when they took the real drug while being told it was a placebo.

"The more we gave a positive message to the patient, the bigger the placebo effect was," Kaptchuk said. "The placebo effect is an unacknowledged partner for powerful medications," he added.

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.

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