Electrical stimulation could provide pain relief alternative for migraines

Written by Lauren Pulling

A preliminary study, published in Neurology, has indicated that a new wireless patch that is worn on the arm provides migraine pain relief that could be as effective as traditional drugs.
“These results need to be confirmed with additional studies, but they are exciting,” said author David Yarnitsky, Technion Faculty of Medicine (Haifa, Israel) and Medical Advisory Board member for Theranica (Netanya, Israel), who made 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.”

In the past, electrical stimulation devices have required wires to be attached to the head – in the case of this new device, the patch features rubber electrodes and a chip on an armband and can be controlled via a smartphone app. It uses electrical stimulation to block nociceptive signals from reaching pain processing centers in the brain.

The new study involved 71 patients who suffer from episodic migraine, who had experienced two to eight attacks per month and had not taken any preventative medicine for at least 2 months. Participants were requested to apply the patch to the upper arm at the start of a migraine and used it for 20 minutes, and were asked not to take any other medications for migraine for 2 hours.

The devices were programed to deliver a placebo, sham or stimulation, either at a very low frequency or at one of four levels of non-painful stimulation. In total, 299 migraines were treated over the course of the study. During active stimulation at the highest three levels, 64% of patients reported an improvement in pain levels by at least 50%, 2 hours after treatment. This is in comparison with 26% of patients who received sham stimulation.

Additionally, administering stimulation within 20 minutes of the start of a migraine was found to be more effective, with 47% of patients reporting a reduction in pain, compared with 25% who administered the stimulation after 20 minutes.

While these results are promising, the research team added that there are some limitations to the study, and follow-up studies will be required. For example, during sham stimulation, participants often stopped treatment before the 20-minute period was over. Yarnitsky added: “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.”

Sources: Yarnitsky D, Volokh L, Ironi A et al. Nonpainful remote electrical stimulation alleviates episodic migraine pain. Neurology 10.1212/WNL.0000000000003760 (2017) (Epub ahead of print); www.aan.com/PressRoom/Home/PressRelease/1530