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Pulse Away Migraine Pain

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Stops Pain, Study Shows

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 22, 2006 -- Migraine sufferers have long wished for a magic wand to wave away the pain before it becomes debilitating.

Yousef Mohammad, MD, MSc, hopes he is studying the next best thing: a hand-held device about the size of a hair dryer that transmits magnetic pulses and aims to "short-circuit" the migraine by interrupting the brain activity believed to cause it.

Mohammad, an assistant professor of neurology at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, found that 74% of migraine sufferers who received two magnetic pulses to the back of the head reported no pain or mild pain two hours later, compared with just 45% of those who got "placebo" pulses from an identical-looking device. He presented his findings at the 48th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society in Los Angeles.

The study was small -- just 43 patients; larger, additional studies are crucial, he says. Still, "the results are encouraging."

Its use in headache is based on an emerging new theory of the cause of migraine, which affects an estimated 28 million Americans.

New Migraine Theory

"Migraine starts with a 'hyperexcitability' in an area in the brain," Mohammad says. "This hyperexcitability is manifested by the patients seeing flickering lights and bright spots in the vision. This is followed by exhaustion of the neurons -- usually blurred vision." This is the so-called aura -- changes in vision and light sensitivity, for instance -- that about one in five migraine patients have. Then the pain usually follows.

The TMS device, which is used as soon as the patient notices the onset of either the aura or the pain, aims to short-circuit this process, which scientists call "cortical spreading depressiondepression." As the depression spreads throughout the brain, the brain activates pain nerve endings on blood vessels surrounding the brain, resulting in the severe pounding and throbbing pain of the headache.

"The device has a coil in it," Mohammad explains. "The coil creates an electrical current that creates a magnetic field. The magnetic field will create an electric current in the brain and deactivate [the process]." The current model is electrical, but the developers plan to create a battery-operated version.

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