What Is Neuromodulation? These Devices Are Giving Migraine Sufferers New Hope For Treatment

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Anyone who gets them will tell you: Migraines are the worst. Getting one means saying goodbye to at least the rest of your day, and possibly goodbye to your lunch, too. Unfortunately, there's not much we can do to avoid getting them. There is, however, a neurology-based migraine treatment called neuromodulation that has recently lead to the development of novel migraine treatment devices, and amazingly, research shows it may actually work.

I've had regular migraines since kindergarten. My first one popped up while I was on a class field trip to the zoo, and much to my embarrassment, my breakfast ended up making the acquaintance of some nearby botanical bushes. My mom, who has been a migraine sufferer all her life, recognized the early signs and took me to the migraine center at our local children's hospital.

But after years of tests, treatment plans that have included relaxation therapy and multiple prescriptions, and trying everything over-the-counter from Advil to that thing with the most annoying ad in the world, I still get migraines at least once per month. I've become an expert at detecting the earliest signs of my pre-migraine auras, which often materialize as an inability to read computer and phone screens, along with jagged neon-purple-and-white zig-zags, before evolving to full blindness in my left eye.

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My situation may sound bad, but I know that suffering just one migraine a month, and being able to tame them with ibuprofen, puts me at the lucky end of the migraine spectrum. Many people suffer weekly migraines, or migraines that last for days, and simply can't find a way to make them abate.

That's where neuromodulation, a potentially groundbreaking type of migraine treatment, comes in.

In an essay for the American Migraine Foundation, Dr. Stewart J. Tepper, a professor of neurology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, explained that neuromodulation devices, though they are often referred to as stimulators, actually get their job done by turning down brain activity, not stimulating it.

"Neuromodulation devices can be electrical, temperature-altering, or magnetic," he said, adding that there are some devices which require surgical implant. There is a noninvasive option, however: FDA-approved handheld devices.Those devices inlclude the Transcutaneous Supraorbital NeuroStimulator (more commonly known as the Cefaly) and the Spring TMS, which both use varieties of neuromodulation for the treatment of migraines. Another neuromodulation device, the gammaCore, is approved for cluster headaches, which in some cases can be as debilitating as migraines. And in July 2017, eNeura, the company that made the Spring TMS, received the FDA's stamp of approval for the sTMS, the first neuromodulation device that is approved for the prevention of migraines.

Now for the nitty-gritty facts, because we've all heard about miracle migraine treatments over the years. Thankfully, research about these neuromodulation devices indicates they're safe and actually effective.

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Neuromodulation devices work by sending electrical or magnetic waves into the nerves on your scalp. If that freaks you out a little, don't worry. Dr. Lauren Doyle Strauss, an assistant professor in neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, told Refinery29 that using a neuromodulation device "feels similar to a massage chair pulsation," and that "[m]any patients use it at night and find it relaxing before sleep."

She added that these devices involve some of the same mechanisms as the much more well-known TENS unit, which also uses stimulation to help relax parts of the body.

And people who have tried out this massage chair for your brain have reported positive effects. eNeura's sTMS device was tested for a study presented at the 2017 American Academy of Neurology conference, and out of 132 subjects who were observed for four months, there was an average of a 9.1-day reduction in headache frequency. The subjects who went into the study reported having had five to 25 headache days per month prior to the study, so 9.1 less days is a big change.

A U.K. study found that subjects who used the sTMS device reported fewer migraine days and shorter attacks — plus, 75 percent of them reported reduced pain severity, and 86 percent reported less medication use when headaches and migraines did strike.

Why these devices haven't yet caught on in the mainstream is likely due to a few things. First, the device that is otherwise easily obtainable is still pretty dang expensive. That's the Cefaly, which retails for $349.99. The other FDA-approved devices, eNeura's sTMS and the gammaCore, are both pricy and hard to get a hold of: They require a prescription and/or written authorization for use from your doctor in the United States.

If you suffer from migraines, you know how awful the search for a treatment that actually works can be. Hopefully, as awareness spreads and more neuromodulation options are developed and approved by the FDA, these devices will become more accessible for the people who most need them.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version.