A new study suggests that a wireless patch successfully uses electrical stimulation to block the pain signals from reaching the brain, potentially leading to a breakthrough in migraine treatment.

In the U.S., more than 37 million people suffer from migraines. Some migraine studies estimate that 13 percent of adults in the U.S. population have migraines, and 2-3 million migraine suffers are chronic. For people like them, this technology could make a big difference. Image via Pexels.

Researchers studied recruited 71 participants who suffered from migraines and regularly took drugs for their condition. Migraineurs applied skin electrodes to the upper arm soon after attack onset for 20 minutes, at various pulse widths, and were asked to refrain from taking any medicine for at least two hours. Patients were asked to use the device for up to 20 attacks.

This was a prospective, double-blinded, randomized, crossover, sham-controlled trial. The devices were programmed to randomly give either a placebo, a sham, or a stimulation at a very low frequency or one of four levels of active stimulation. The stimulation was designed to not be painful — it was only meant to stop the pain.

A total of 299 migraines were treated with the device during the study. In total, 64% of participants who received the real stimulus reported a reduction in their pain by 50%. Interestingly, the placebo group also reported some improvement, but significantly less: just 26% of them reported that their pain was halved (which is still pretty intriguing, placebo kicks in again).

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Although it is still early stages for this type of treatment, results are highly encouraging, as researchers themselves declared. Pain reduction was similar to that of triptan medications, for example. Triptans are used for the treatment of severe migraine attacks or those that do not respond to NSAIDs or other over-the-counter drugs.

“These results need to be confirmed with additional studies, but they are exciting,” said study author David Yarnitsky, MD, of Technion Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, Israel, and a member of the Medical Advisory Board for Theranica, maker of the stimulation device. “People with migraine are looking for non-drug treatments, and this new device is easy to use, has no side effects and can be conveniently used in work or social settings.”

The current was harmless (imagine placing a 9V battery on your tongue), and there were no side effects.

However, there were also some limitations of the study. For starters, the sample size is not that great. Before this becomes a readily-available treatment much more testing is still required. Secondly, during the sham simulations, some patients stopped the treatment.

“This may indicate that they knew the stimulation was not active, and thus they were no longer blinded to the study, which is a challenge in any sham stimulation study,” he said.

Lastly, migraines are a spectrum disorder, meaning their mechanism can vary greatly and this is not going to be a panacea for all types of migraines.

Still, the prospect of treating migraines with a wireless patch, without any drugs or side effects, is enticing and potentially opens up new doors for people suffering from other conditions.

Journal Reference: David Yarnitsky, Lana Volokh, Alon Ironi, Boaz Weller, Merav Shor, Alla Shifrin, and Yelena Granovsky — Nonpainful remote electrical stimulation alleviates episodic migraine pain. doi: http:/ / dx. doi. org/ 10. 1212/ WNL. 0000000000003760