BY SARAH OWENS
People who experience migraines may soon have an easy-to-use device to relieve pain. A study published online on March 1 in Neurology found that skin stimulation, delivered through an armband and controlled by the patient via a smartphone app, can help ease pain.
Looking for Alternative Treatments
A variety of treatments—for acute, preventive, and for chronic attacks—already exists to treat migraine, but some people don't respond to these treatments or experience side effects, which is why researchers continue to search for alternatives.
Previous studies have shown that conditioned pain modulation, which involves activating pain inhibition centers in the brain using a mildly or non-painful stimulus, can dull pain associated with conditions such as diabetic neuropathy. Researchers at Bnei Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, hoped that by stimulating these centers using a gentle, non-painful electric pulse, they could elicit a pain-relieving response in people with migraine.
Testing Electrical Stimulation
They enrolled 86 people who had episodic migraines—between two and eight attacks per month for at least two months—in their study. Half the patients received real electrical stimulation via a device on the upper arm that contained two rubber electrodes and a power source that was controlled by a custom-made app on each participant's smartphone. The other half received placebo using a sham, or imitation, device.
Within the first few minutes of a migraine attack, patients activated the device to deliver gentle, non-painful electric stimuli to the skin at three varying pulse frequencies for 20 minutes. The participants did not take any other migraine medications within two hours of the procedure.
The researchers measured the patients' level of pain before, during, and after each migraine attack using a 0-10 scale of pain intensity.
Stimulation Leads to Pain Reduction
Sixty four percent of patients experienced at least a 50-percent reduction in pain during the migraine attack. More than half of participants who started at severe-to-moderate pain were reduced to mild or no pain, compared to 24 percent of patients on placebo.
In addition, the researchers found that the earlier electrical stimulation was used, the better its chances of success. Participants who underwent stimulation within 20 minutes of a migraine attack had an average pain reduction of 46.7 percent, compared to 24.9 percent among those who started the stimulation after 20 minutes.
Coming Soon to a Doctor's Office Near You
The findings, the researchers wrote, suggest that the device may be a promising new migraine treatment for patients who don't like or haven't responded well to drugs and other treatments. Since migraines typically progress slowly and develop to full pain over several hours, patients have time to administer stimulation to ease it.
As an extra bonus, the researchers noted, the device is small, meaning it "could be discreetly put under sleeves, and activated via a smartphone, [with] no wires involved." That means a patient could use the device at work or in social situations.