Overcoming Pain: Can a Pacemaker Cure Migraines?

PHOTO: Neurostimulator
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Thirteen years ago Kelly Ampascher woke up with a massive headache.

"I thought I was going to die, the first night they took me to the emergency room 13 years ago," she said. "I thought I was going to die...throbbing pulsating feeling like spears are coming through my eyes."

It was a crushing, nauseating migraine, and it's never gone away. Years of misery nearly wrecked her life.

"I was in a doctoral program and I had quit school...I had to leave my job," said Ampascher.

Doctors tried everything -- 44 different drugs -- and nothing worked. Then, Amspacher found Dr. Stephen Silberstein, a leading headache specialist at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson Hospital.

"About 40 percent of women aged 30 to 40 have had an attack of migraine," said Silberstein. He says women, with surges and dips in hormones, are more susceptible to migraines than men.

There are women who say they lost their jobs and can't function. Their family lives suffer.

"I hear it every day. We get the worst of the worst. Here people not only have bad attacks of migraines, but they have them almost every day," said Silberstein. "Their life is almost a continuous migraine hell."

Desperate, Ampascher learned that Silberstein was conducting a study that might offer a ray of hope. It was a wire that resembled a spaghetti noodle called a neurostimulator. It acts like a pacemaker and was implanted inside of Ampascher's body, just below her hip. Two wires were then threaded up her spine to the nerves at the base of her neck.

Whenever a migraine hits, she uses a remote control to send tiny electrical impulses which interrupt the pain signals shooting into her head.

"When I woke up from the anesthesia and they turned the unit on and found the appropriate stimulation settings...I noticed the pain was down to like a zero," she said. "I didn't have any pain at all."

"The concept is very simple," said Silberstein. "If you hurt your hand and you rub it, it feels better. That's because one type of stimulation turns down the pain."

Right now, the stimulator is only being used for the very worst of migraines, and while it is widely available in Europe, it is still in the trial phase here in the United States. But with half of the test patients reporting fewer headaches, this device offers long-awaited hope to those living with pain.

"We've had patients who've had pain every day of their life, they've had 60 or 80 percent improvement," said Silberstein. "They've got their lives back."

"It has freed me immensely," said Ampascher. "I am able to engage more with family and friends...I have gone back to being my outgoing, very perky self."

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