Experimental Treatment May Relieve Migraines

Michelle Newborough spent years living with the torture of chronic migraines, dealing with constant, throbbing pain that only darkness and solitude could relieve.

"It kind of felt like someone either had hit me in the eye or someone was trying to pull my eye out of its socket," said Newborough, 34. "The headaches just kept increasing, getting worse every day."

The pain made her job as a teacher agonizing sometimes, but when her daughter, Kirsten, was born five years ago, the physical pain became emotional as well.

"Sometimes I'd feel so miserable I couldn't even climb the stairs to tuck her in bed," she recalled. "As a mother, that's hard."

Similarly, migraines had been making life difficult for Georgia Reese Shaut, 58, from the time she was in third grade. "I couldn't do anything," she said. "I couldn't get out of bed. It hurt to lay there. It hurt to get up."

She suffered in agony for days on end. Plans with her husband, her grandchildren and her work at a law firm were all derailed when the debilitating headaches struck.

"The pain is so excruciating that you just can't function," she said.

Seeking Alternatives

Both women tried doctor after doctor, medicine after medicine, to no avail. Desperate, they turned to Dr. Richard Weiner and an experimental procedure for help.

"I remember for both these women that when they came to me, they were suffering a great deal," Weiner said.

They found hope in a little device called a neurostimulator that literally can turn off the pain with the flick of a switch. It has been used for years to treat back pain and Parkinson's disease. Weiner used it to develop a procedure called occipital nerve stimulation to treat migraines.

Electrical leads are placed under the skin at the base of the head near the occipital nerves. Those wires are connected to the stimulator, which is implanted in the abdomen.

When a patient starts to feel headache pain, he or she turns on the device using an external programmer and the electricity is able to block the pain signals to the brain.

The results for Newborough, who received the implant two months ago, were dramatic. "It's a life-altering procedure," she said. "I turn it on the minute I start to feel a headache and it's night and day compared to how it was."

After using the device in hundreds of headache patients, Weiner has found it so successful that a new study is under way, headed by Dr. Joel Saper, with the goal of getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve the device's use to treat migraines.

"In a way, this is a very new chapter in the treatment of a very old illness," Saper said.

Shaut has lived with the implant for six years and reports no negative side effects. "It's just the most wonderful thing I have ever done," she said. "I have a whole new life."

And now that Newborough can turn off her headaches with the push of a button, she's considering going back to teaching and relishes the simple joys of being a mother. She says the power to close down her migraine pain has opened up her life to new possibilities.

"This is what, you know, our dreams were based on … finding something to help these headaches," she said. "And now, you know, it's like, I don't look back anymore. I look forward."

For more information, visit Dr. Richard Weiner's Web site, www.phscare.org, device manufacturer Medtronic, www.medtronic.com, or Dr. Joel Saper's site at the Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute, www.mhni.com.

Thea Trachtenberg produced this story for Good Morning America.