June 26, 2008 -- Some migraine sufferers may be able to avoid medication by zapping away their pain with a hand-held magnetic device, new research suggests.
The hair dryer-size device, called a transcranial magnetic stimulation device, delivers brief magnetic impulses to the brain. The researchers, who presented their results today at the American Headache Society meeting in Boston, hypothesized that the magnetic field pulses could short-circuit the pain signals in the brain.
"I think for migraine, it's extremely likely that this [device] will become part of the therapeutic armamentarium," said Dr. Richard Lipton, director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York. "I think for some people who don't like taking prescription medications ... or for people who have side effects to these drugs, this will prove to be a very useful option."
In the new study, researchers looked at 201 patients who suffered from a kind of migraine called "migraine with aura" -- one that is often accompanied by vivid visual disturbances, or blind spots. These kinds of migraines, which 20 to 30 percent of migraine sufferers experience, are sometimes accompanied by other neurological symptoms such as numbness, weakness or unsteadiness.
Half the patients were given a genuine stimulation device, and the other half an identical-looking device that did not deliver any magnetic current. The researchers asked the patients to hold the device to the back of their heads as soon as they began to experience the aura signaling an oncoming migraine.
They found that 39 percent of those who used the real thing were pain-free two hours after using the device, compared with only 22 percent of patients who used the fake device.
Magnets, an Attractive New Option?
Proponents say the new option could be an important addition to migraine treatment, which more or less comprises three options. The first is to identify and avoid certain headache triggers, which can range from diet to the amount of sleep and exercise one gets. The second approach is called acute treatment, in which a patient takes medication -- usually a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or a prescription pain reliever -- at the onset of a headache.
The final option is called preventative treatment, in which a patient takes prescription medication every day to prevent a headache from ever occurring. But this approach is generally only taken by those who suffer from severe migraines on a daily or almost daily basis.
And despite the various treatment options available to migraine sufferers, most have not found one that works reliably.
But Joel Saper, M.D., one of the researchers involved in the study and director of the Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., cautioned that because the use of magnets as an alternative pain treatment is still a premature area of research, people should not consider these results as definitive.
"It's important to stress that this is a preliminary study, not one of the final, large, pivotal studies which change the course of our thinking," Saper said.
Part of this uncertainty may be because headache experts are still unsure of what exactly causes these migraines. This makes it difficult to offer migraine sufferers a treatment plan that is guaranteed to prevent 100 percent of their pain 100 percent of the time.
Still, Saper said, the findings hold promise.
"The research is promising, and if [this technique] comes to continued success in further studies, then it will help some people who don't benefit from other therapies or can't benefit from other therapies, and maybe even expand into other areas where these treatments may be helpful," he said.
The treatment may be welcomed especially by the significant subset of migraine patients who either do not respond to traditional prescription medications or experience negative side effects from the drugs. For these patients, complementary and alternative medicine experts have been studying the use of magnets for the purpose of pain relief for years.
For instance, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1982 found that electromagnets can be used to speed the healing of bone fractures.
Another study published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences in 2000 found that the stimulation device has an effect on the central nervous system that might relieve chronic pain.
Woodson Merrell, M.D., chairman of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, said that the use of the stimulation device and other therapies involving magnets will allow many migraine patients to avoid prescription medication and the side effects associated with these drugs.
"I think the TMS device definitely will and should join the treatment arsenal for migraines, and probably many other problems such as superficial sprains or fractures," Merrell said.
"What's to lose with this treatment? It's not like you're giving patients some biological agent that could have sweeping biological effects and could interfere with other medications a patient is taking, or simply bring on negative side effects," Merrell added. "A therapy using magnets is inexpensive and virtually free of side effects."