What is a migraine? Why migraine happens. Who gets migraines? Treating migraines.

Electrical Stimulation May Ease Migraines

A very small pilot study has found that using electrical stimulation on the occipital nerve, or the nerve that connects the back of the brain to the spinal cord, eases chronic migraines in certain patients who find no relief from other forms of treatment. If these results can be duplicated and confirmed, this may be a new tool in the arsenal for treating a severe and debilitating condition.

Severe Pain

Migraines cause severe pain that can be accompanied by a wide variety of symptoms including photosensitivity and nausea, and afflict around 28 million U.S. residents. Most of the migraine drugs are used as prophylactics to prevent attacks, while a more recent class of drugs known as triptans has been found to be quite successful in alleviating the headaches once they start. Still, as many as 14% of all migraine sufferers find no relief from any of the drugs on the market and are desperate to find new treatment alternatives.

Electrical Pulses 

One alternative approach involves the use of an electrostimulation device that was developed by a Minneapolis company known as Medtronic Inc. The device has find leads that are intended for placement under the skin in the area surrounding the occipital nerves. These nerves begin inside the spinal cord and then fan out at the back of the brain. The leads are connected to a neurostimulator that is implanted into the patient. This neurostimulator is used to deliver controlled electrical pulses to the occipital nerves.

Lead author of the pilot study, Dr. Joel R. Saper, of Ann Arbor's Michigan Head-Pain and Neurological Institute, along with his colleagues, gathered 67 migraine patients for the study, which was funded by Medtronic. The participants tended to 15 days or more, per month, of headache time and none found relief from conventional treatments.  Of the 67 participants, 33 had the Medtronic device implanted, 17 received a sham device, and the remaining sufferers were treated with conventional medications.

According to the report published by Saper and his team in the headache journal Cephalalgia, 39% of the patients receiving the true device reported a 50% decrease in the number of migraine days they suffered each month or had a significant lessening of pain intensity over the course of the three-month study period. The most common side effect found with the device was migration of the leads, which did not develop into any long-term complication for any of the participants.