August 31, 2016
"Apply directly to the forehead," infamously commanded a TV commercial for HeadOn, a pain reliever introduced in 2006 by a company called Miralus Healthcare. The product, which costs $25 and is sold in drug stores and online, claims to relieve headache and migraine pain. It is not a pill nor a solution but instead a waxy paste. Topical medicines are sometimes used to relieve local skin and muscle pains, but the idea that it could somehow relieve headache pain has aroused plenty of skepticism. According to its Amazon.com listing, “Head On Pain Reliever apply directly to the forehead. It is invisible and non greasy. Homeopathic. It's [sic] can be used as often as needed. Safe to use with other medications.”
The first clue that something's amiss with the product is that its formula is homeopathic. Homeopathic solutions are often so literally watered-down that they don't contain a single molecule of the original medicine or substance: the patient is drinking or using nothing but water. Homeopathic medicines have not been shown to work better than placebos, yet many people use and endorse homeopathy.
In 2006, skeptic James Pryor contacted the makers of HeadOn, requesting information about how the product could possibly work, since HeadOn "does not penetrate the skull. So it must enter the blood stream. The only way for it to get to my brain is for it to travel to the heart through the bloodstream, then back out through the bloodstream to my brain. So how is it better than a swallowed pill that breaks down, enters the bloodstream, and travels to my brain?" On the James Randi Educational Foundation Web site, Pryor posted the official company response, which was as concise and evasive as it was medically ignorant: "It works through the nerves."
Consumer Reports noted that no clinical trial data had been made available proving that the product works, and that "A company executive said such studies had been conducted but were not yet published and therefore could not be divulged. Without those data, our medical consultants said, any apparent efficacy may be the result of the placebo effect." In March 2006 the Better Business Bureau (BBB) recommended that HeadOn discontinue making unproven claims about its product's efficacy, though six years later they have yet to do so-perhaps a result of the BBB's lack of enforcement powers. Consumer Reports concluded, "Given the lack of clinical evidence showing that HeadOn works, it makes more sense to try proven drug treatments."
Though the kitschy HeadOn commercials are not as common as they used to be, the product is still around. On its page on Amazon.com, there are twice as many five-star reviews touting the miracle product's amazing relief as one-star reviews dismissing it. The placebo effect is powerful indeed.