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The Potential of Neurostimulation to Relieve Chronic Migraines

A Look at Investigational Progress on Non-Drug, Neurostimulation Alternatives to Help Control Chronic Headache Pain

February 2022

Most of us experience common tension headaches from time to time. They frequently are caused by stress. Rest, ice packs or a long, hot shower may be all you need to gain relief.

Some of us, however, suffer with far more persistent and chronic migraines and other headache syndromes. This group includes roughly 36 million Americans, including up to 18% of women and 8% of men. The American Migraine Foundation estimates that one in four American households has at least one member who suffers with migraines.

Migraines are much more than just a bad headache. Migraines can cause severe throbbing pain on one side of your head. They are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light, sounds and smells.

Migraine pain can be felt in the face, where it may be mistaken for sinus headache — or in the neck, where it may be mistaken for arthritis or muscle spasm. Medications can help prevent or relieve some migraines and make them less painful. However at least 5 to 10 percent of sufferers do not find relief from medications. And others experience issues with medication side-affects.

Woman suffering from chronic migraine headache.
Roughly 36 million Americans suffer persistent and chronic migraine headaches.

The Potential for Neurostimulation Relief

New options are currently being evaluated when chronic migraines don’t respond to medications and conventional treatments. These procedures involve nerve stimulation devices that target key nerves that may be involved with migraines:

  • Occipital Nerves: These are a group of nerves that arise from the C2 and C3 vertebrae at the top of the cervical spine and provide most of the feeling to the back of your head.
  • Supraorbital Nerve: This nerve supplies sensory functions to the upper eyelid, forehead, and scalp.
  • Trigeminal Nerve: This nerve is the part of your nervous system responsible for sending pain, touch and temperature sensations from your face to your brain.

The technology behind these innovative treatments date back to 1967. In fact, you may have heard of spinal cord stimulation (SCS), which a widely used neurostimulation therapy for pain management in other parts of the body. In this case for migraines, the same class of devices are specifically designed to deliver small electrical impulses to the occipital, supraorbital or trigeminal nerves.

How Does It Work?

What does this kind neurostimulation therapy involve? It uses small devices about the size of a silver dollar that produce mild electrical signals. Those signals are carried by thin leads to deliver electric pulses to the targeted nerves. A hand-held remote control operates the system to disrupt pain signals caused by migraine headaches and provide pain relief to sufferers.

The process doesn’t eliminate the cause of the pain, but instead, interrupts the transmission of pain signals so that the pain isn’t perceived by the brain.

How Effective Is the Treatment?

We should make clear that neurostimulation treatments for migraine relief are still at the medical trial stage, and investigational evaluations have been going on for the last 12 years. These small, preliminary studies investigating the use of neurostimulation as a treatment for chronic migraines appear to be showing some improvement in pain management. However, additional well-designed studies with larger populations and longer follow-up periods are needed before conclusions regarding the safety and efficacy of these techniques can be made.

The bottom line? There is evidence that this kind of nerve stimulation may be effective in treating chronic headache disorders. But more studies will be required before this therapy can be considered for routine use.

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