For the more than 45 million Americans who suffer from chronic headaches, relief may be on the way in the form of an electric pulse, according to a study presented at the ANESTHESIOLOGY™ 2013 annual meeting. Electric stimulation of the peripheral nerve reduced average headache intensity by more than 70 percent.
With electric stimulation of the peripheral nerve, a thin insulated wire is implanted in the back of the head (occipital nerve) or in the forehead above the eyebrow (supraorbital nerve) and delivers electric pulses to block pain. The study looked into the safety and long-term usefulness of this treatment.
"Despite advances in headache treatment over the past two decades, many people do not get adequate pain relief from current treatments, or they cannot tolerate the side effects of the medications," said Billy K. Huh, M.D., Ph.D., professor and medical director of the Department of Pain Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, and adjunct professor of the Department of Anesthesiology at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. "This treatment offers hope to those patients and a chance for a major improvement in quality of life."
The study monitored 46 patients who received peripheral nerve stimulation between 2005 and 2012. Follow-up phone interviews were conducted to determine subsequent headache intensity, frequency of headaches per month, complications and overall satisfaction with the treatment.
The study found that both headache intensity and frequency decreased significantly. The average headache intensity was reduced by more than 70 percent. The average number of "headache days" decreased from 28 to 14 per month. Ninety percent of patients were satisfied with the treatment, with one reporting more than eight years of reduced headache intensity and frequency.
A drawback of the treatment is its relatively high level of complications, which include electrode migration, equipment problems and infection. The study authors state that as physicians gain experience with implantation techniques, complications will decrease.
"This is a real breakthrough for chronic headache sufferers," explained Dr. Huh. "For patients with no other options to relieve their pain and suffering, this treatment is a way for them to get their life back."
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