Does the Placebo Effect Help My Migraines?


My friend Robyn is also a migraineur and shares with me the tips and tricks she finds helpful. She texted me about trying aromatherapy in the form of peppermint oil and I asked her more about it. About a week later Robyn gave me a peppermint stick to try.

I liked it. The smell was pleasant and when I used it on my skin it had a delightful cooling sensation on areas of my body that were in pain. After that stick was used up, I purchased an oil product Robyn recommended that was more potent.

My teenager was critical. “You know aromatherapy is just hogwash, don’t you?”

“I’m not using it because I think it’s a cure,” I told her, “I’m using it because I think it’s a soothe.”

I’m glad that I’ve raised kids that think through things with an eye for science and evidence. I don’t want to believe things that aren’t true, and I don’t want to waste money on therapies that won’t help. But skepticism can sometimes overreach.

I can tell you what scientific research shows about aromatherapy: not much. When well-designed studies are used, aromatherapy’s effects are not seen, contradictory or quite small.

So why do I use it? I do a lot of different things because of my migraines. Some, like my preventative and occurrence medications, have evidence behind them. Other things I do simply because they make me feel good, like hot baths and aromatherapy. I may not be able to find a double-blind placebo-controlled study that shows me that peppermint oil is doing something to alleviate my struggles in the moment. Neither am I likely to find a peer-reviewed paper in “The Lancet” that shows me that curling up in my rust colored fuzzy blanket and watching back to back episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” is going to be helpful. But I’m not going to quit doing those strategies, either.

In Norman Doidge’s book, “The Brain’s Way of Healing,” Doidge asks psychiatrist Michael Moskowitz if the success he has had treating chronic pain through his treatments is due to the placebo effect. Moskowitz grins and says, “I hope so.” Doidge goes on to explain that brain scans in some studies show some patients who received the placebo treatment experience change to their brain structure. In other words, the healing was real, due to our amazing capacity for humans to heal ourselves. Doidge and Moskowitz view the brain’s ability to change the brain’s perception of pain as something we should seek to capture.

This does not mean I am going to advocate the spread of unscientific or possibly scrupulous practices. There is possible harm that can come from the consumption of certain products. I, for one, have limited financial resources so I do want to know what is evidence-based when I am making decisions about what strategies to try.

But I can’t ignore the reality that pain is brain-based, and that I may be able to influence how my brain processes pain.

So I will try things like meditation, counseling, relaxation and yes, aromatherapy, to address stress, emotions, sensory issues and hopefully these will have an affect on my neurology that sometimes seems to go haywire on me.

If that peppermint oil ends up “fooling” my brain into perceiving the pain coming down a notch or two and someone wants to call that the placebo effect, that’s quite all right with me. I’ll just be over here feeling better.

Getty Image by cindygoff


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