When you're in the midst of a migraine, all you want is an off switch that will take away the crippling pain, nausea, and visual psychedelics. Such a device sounds absolutely too good to be true, but there's a new and promising technology called neuromodulation that might actually prevent and treat migraine pain with the push of a button.
How does this sorcery work? It's complicated, because doctors don't know exactly what causes migraines in the first place. One possible explanation is that migraines are the result of a wave of activity in different parts of your brain. So, what a neuromodulation device or stimulator could do is "turn down" your brain activity, and hopefully stop or prevent migraines and the accompanying symptoms. In other words, it's kind of like that mythical off switch for your migraine. You can use them when you get one to stop the pain, or as a daily preventative treatment.
So, what's it like to use one of these things?
The devices are small, portable, and look like headgear out of Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. While you might not want to wear them out on a first Tinder date, there is promising research that they actually work. So how is that possible? When you stick the device on your forehead, it sends electricity or magnets into the nerves on your scalp for 2o to 30 minutes, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
Even though it seems freaky to think about electricity going into your brain, it doesn't hurt to wear the devices, and it can "feel similar to a massage chair pulsation," according to Lauren Doyle Strauss, DO, assistant professor in the department of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. "Many patients use it at night and find it relaxing before sleep," she says. If you've ever heard of or used a TENS unit during physical therapy, neuromodulation is very similar, and involves some of the same mechanisms, Dr. Strauss says.
Do they really work?
At the moment, the FDA has only approved three devices for migraines: Cefaly, SpringTMS, and gammaCore. In studies, people who used Cefaly had 50% fewer headache days per month, which is a pretty big deal. And just two pulses of the magnet in SpringTMS was enough to stop a migraine with an aura in around 40% of patients. GammaCore, on the other hand, is designed to treat cluster headaches, though it may be helpful for treating migraines, too. One person who reviewed Cefaly online said that it helped to prevent attacks, and another SpringTMS user called it a "breakthrough." But everyone's brains and migraines are different, so it's tough to say whether or not they'd work on everyone.
If you're curious about trying a neuromodulation device, you should talk to your neurologist and see if it's a viable option for you, Dr. Strauss says. "You will need a prescription from your doctor, and it is often not covered by insurance," she says. The price of the devices range between $250 and $350, and if you have a flexible spending account, you might be able to use it to buy one. You can also look into getting a trial unit, to see if it works for your headaches first before buying your own, Dr. Strauss adds.
What's all the hype about?
The reason why these neuromodulation devices are so exciting for some migraineurs, is because treating migraines is, frankly, a huge pain in the ass. There are prescription drugs (usually ones in the triptan family) that you can take at the onset of a migraine, but studies suggest that 40% of people don't respond to those treatments. And in terms of preventative drugs, the only options for people (usually anticonvulsants, beta-blockers, or blood-pressure medications) come with a slew of side effects that make them unappealing for daily use. So, for the one in four women with migraines, their day-to-day life consists of trying to avoid a migraine trigger or dealing with the painful symptoms that inevitably come.
Who knows if neuromodulation devices will actually become a thing that most people turn to for their migraines? But the good news is that they exist, and they may provide the relief people are desperately seeking in the middle of a migraine.