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If you have ever had a migraine headache, you know just how painful, debilitating, and even dangerous they can be. A new pacemaker for the brain, however, is helping some people make migraines a thing of their past.

There isn't any pain quite like the pain of migraine headaches. Often signaled by a sudden change in vision, such as blurry vision, blindness on one side of the field vision, or an aura that makes the whole world look like you are looking through a kaleidoscope, migraines usually come with a variety of disagreeable symptoms.

Migraine usually causes intense, throbbing headache pain that is worst just behind the eyes.

Some people who get migraines, however, experience no pain at all. Typically, women who get migraines have more pain and fewer symptoms of visual distortion, and men who get migraines have less pain but more visual distortions. Along with headache, the condition often causes nausea, vomiting, and feelings of anxiety or anger or despair. Light and sound become intensely painful, so that the migraine sufferer just wants to find a dark, quiet place to curl up until it's over. Some migraine sufferers experience two or three migraine attacks every day. There are even some people who essentially have migraines all the time, and who are basically disabled by the condition.

But neurosurgeon Dr. Brian Snyder of Winthrop-University Hospital on Long Island, New York has been able to give some of his patients complete relief from migraine by surgical implantation of a pacemaker not for the heart but for the brain. This remarkable device looks like and runs like a pacemaker for the heart. It is just connected to different nerves, at the base of the skull rather than at the tip of the heart.

How the Migraine Zapper Works

The pacemaker for migraines is inserted just above the collarbone like a pacemaker for the heart. It is connected to a small device placed on the base of the skull, where the occipital nerves, the nerves that send the brain information from the eyes, enter the brain.

The procedure is not totally painless, but it is often performed with just local anesthetic, and usually takes 30 to 45 minutes in the operating room.

There is a brief stay in post-op and most patients go home the next day. There is some pain and soreness where the pacemaker is placed in the chest, and occasionally there can be bleeding. Dr. Snyder usually does the surgery in two parts, first giving his patients a temporary pacemaker to make sure the procedure works, and then implanting the pacemaker permanently.

Get Rid of Migraines By Remote Control

Unlike a cardiac pacemaker, the brain pacemaker isn't in operation all the time. Patients carry a remote control device that turns on the pacemaker so it can send electrical impulses to the occipital lobe of the brain at the first sign of a migraine. The more pain the user experiences, the stronger the electrical signals will be. This process of occipital nerve stimulation is thought to reduce the severity and frequency of migraine attacks.

This technique is also used to treat fibromyalgia and trigeminal neuralgia, chronic pain in the cheeks of the face. Similar devices have been around since 1977, and there are over 580 studies of them published in the medical literature.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Palmisani S, Al-Kaisy A, Arcioni R, Smith T, Negro A, Lambru G, Bandikatla V, Carson E, Martelletti P. A six year retrospective review of occipital nerve stimulation practice - controversies and challenges of an emerging technique for treating refractory headache syndromes. J Headache Pain. 2013 Aug 6.14(1):67. doi: 10.1186/1129-2377-14-67.
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  • Photo courtesy of Doug Belshaw by Flickr :

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