Battery-Powered Headband Helps Prevent Migraines

The latest treatment is a high tech, metallic headband that stops pain by sending electrical signals through the skin to the "trigeminal" nerve, a nerve thought to play a role in many migraines.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

This is the last week to get insurance through the Affordable Care Act. The deadline for open enrollment is Monday, March 31st.

GREENE: So today, in Your Health, we'll be answering some last-minute questions about how to sign up. But first, migraine headaches. Millions of Americans suffer from them. They can be extremely debilitating, especially for women who suffer these painful headaches three times as frequently as men.

INSKEEP: And now, there is a new device on the market designed to prevent migraine headaches. It's a migraine headband and it's just been approved by the FDA.

As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, it works using electrical stimulation.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: It looks like something out of "Star Trek," a plastic headband that sits across the forehead sort of like an exercise sweatband. It's made by Cefaly technology, a medical device company based in Belgium. Dr. Pierre Rigaux is CEO.

DR. PIERRE RIGAUX: It's migraine prevention. That means you are using the Cefaly every day to reduce the frequency of the migraine attacks.

NEIGHMOND: The battery-operated headband sends small electrical pulses through the forehead to the nerve researchers think is responsible for migraine headaches. For patients, it feels like a mild tingling and the intensity can be adjusted.

RIGAUX: Unusual feelings, which is some kind of tickling - it's a little bizarre on the forehead.

NEIGHMOND: Scientists don't know exactly how it works, but think the electrical stimulation reduces activity in regions of the brain where migraines begin - sort of sedating them. In a small company-sponsored study, people who wore the headband for 20 minutes everyday saw a significant reduction in the number of migraines they suffered. They went from having for migraines a month down to three or two, or as few as one. Now, this was a really small study; just 30 people wore the actual device.

Neurologist Andrew Charles directs the Headache Research and Treatment Program at UCLA.

ANDREW CHARLES: My sense, to be honest, is that it is not going to be a game changer for a lot of patients.

NEIGHMOND: But at the same time, Charles says for many of his patients any reduction in the number of migraines they suffer is meaningful.

CHARLES: Certainly it's something that you could argue that there isn't much to lose by giving it a shot, since it doesn't have - as far as we can tell - any kind of long-term or significant side-effects.

NEIGHMOND: The technique of stimulating nerves to reduce pain has been around for years. A machine calls TENS, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, is often used to reduce pain in small regions of the body such as in carpal tunnel syndrome.

Anesthesiologist Jim Rathmell is a pain specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

JIM RATHMELL: The idea is a lot like after injury when you rub an area and it provides relief. An area that's been injured usually you touch, it hurts. If you rub it, you've put light touch in place and it can be quite soothing.

NEIGHMOND: Rathmell says the electrical stimulation may trigger a chemical response in the brain.

RATHMELL: It probably stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, or the chemicals that allow nerve transmission, and that interferes with the pain transmission. But we don't know with great certainty exactly how it works.

NEIGHMOND: Cefaly's Dr. Rigaux recommends using the headband in the evening, since it can have a sedating effect and make people sleepy. You need a prescription to get one and it costs about $300.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

INSKEEP: To see a picture of the migraine headband, see if it fits your personal style and learn more about how it works, go to NPR.org.

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