Migraine treatment with a magnetic pulse

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© Todd Wright/Blend Images/Corbis

Administering a small magnetic pulse to the back of the head may be an effective, and drug-free, method for combating migraine pain, according to new research published online this week, and in the April issue of the journal Lancet Neurology. Previous research has suggested that this single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (sTMS) may be an effective way to reduce migraine pain in patients who suffer from migraine with aura—or migraines accompanied by visual symptoms such as flashes or even blind spots. Yet in earlier studies, patients were aware of their treatment method, undermining results. They were also treated with large, in-clinic devices that would be both cost-prohibitive and unwieldy for home use. So, to test the efficacy of a small, hand-held device that administers sTMS, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine recruited 201 migraine patients, who were either given the sTMS tool for in-home treatment (102), or a placebo device that delivered sham treatment. They found that, at the end of a three-month study period, sTMS was significantly better at reducing patient pain than the sham treatment.

During the study period, patients were instructed to use their respective devices to treat up to three migraines when they first began experiencing symptoms. Participants were instructed to record pain and duration of symptoms both before treatment, and at set intervals after using the device. The researchers found that, compared with patients using the fake device, patients who used the sTMS reported having no pain two hours, one day and two days after the treatment, and said that they did experience migraine recurrence or end up needing medication to treat the pain. Of 164 patients who suffered and treated a migraine during the trial period, 39% in the sTMS group reported feeling no pain two hours after treatment, compared to 22% in the control group.

Migraine researchers believe that sTMS targets migraine pain by interrupting the electrical events in the brain that lead to migraine with aura. The findings suggest that at-home sTMS may be a promising treatment for patients who suffer from migraine with aura, the researchers conclude—especially considering that most study subjects found the devices quite easy to use. Patients seldom experienced errors using the device, and, on average, rated its ease of use at 8 on a scale from 1 to 10.