Nerve Stimulation May Prevent Migraines

Photograph of the Cefaly anti-migraine device, courtesy of STX-Medssprl via Creative Commons licensing
Photograph of Cefaly anti-migraine device, courtesy of STX-Med via Creative Commons license

While shopping for groceries at Trader Joes, suddenly your peripheral vision disappears. This could be frightening, but you know what is coming — a one-sided pulsating pain, sensitivity to light and noise, nausea, vomiting and seeing flashing lights. You quickly drive home and cancel your plans, because you have a migraine coming. You need to lie still in a dark quiet room for the next 24 hours.

Migraines affect about 30 million Americans. This means that one in four households in the US have at least one member impaired by migraines. Women are three times more likely to be migraine sufferers than men.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for migraines. A migraine diary can help identify the headache triggers to avoid. Medications can also help reduce the number of attacks or ease the symptoms, but these medications are often ineffective or cause unpleasant side effects.

Instead migraine sufferers might find relief from a new non-medicinal alternative, a device called a supraorbital transcutaneous stimulator (STS) that stimulates the nerves around the eyes and forehead. A study recently published in Neurology tested the safety and effectiveness of this STS device designed to prevent migraines.

Conducted by researchers in five specialized headache clinics in Belgium, this study was a randomized controlled trial that compared the STS device with an identical-looking sham device. Study participants were aged 18 to 65 who routinely experienced a minimum of two migraine attacks per month. None of the 67 participants had taken anti-migraine medications in the three months leading up to the study.

Both the STS and sham devices used a self-adhesive electrode placed on the forehead that buzzed identically during treatment. Only the STS devices delivered electrical impulses. The participants wore one of the devices for 20 minutes per day for 90 days.

The participants’ migraine diaries indicated that the number of migraine attacks dropped by at least half for 38% of the participants using the STS device, compared with 12% for those using the sham device. Although the severity of the migraines was not reduced, people using the STS device had fewer days with headache, fewer total migraine attacks, and used fewer pain relief medications each month. Most importantly, there were no adverse effects seen in either group.

The study concluded that treatment with a STS device is “effective and safe as a preventive therapy for migraine.” However, only 67 migraine sufferers have been studied and the use of this device was only examined for three months. Larger studies with longer-term treatment are needed to confirm that this STS device is safe and effective.

For more information about migraines and the STS device, check out my KQED Quest blog.

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer, editor and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.

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