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About 15 years ago I went to an academic seminar on treating stress-related diseases. I met an amazingly inventive engineer named Saul Lyss. He had invented something you could call a "migraine zapper," although it was actually a group of pulsating magnets concealed in a headband. Put on the headband, flip a switch, and your migraine would go away. It was very impressive.

Dr Lyss didn't market his device personally (I don't really know about the disposition of his patents), but variations of migraine zappers have appeared, with FDA approval, in the USA. They were already available in Switzerland and Sweden when I met Dr Lyss in 2000. The thing to know about any device of this kind is:

  • Taping a refrigerator magnet to your head won't work. Only pulsating magnets at the right frequency make a difference. Static (stationary) magnetic fields don't affect pain.
  • Pulsating magnets seem to block a phenomenon called cortical spreading depression. At least two (and probably more) things happen during this phenomenon. The cells in the cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, lose their electrical charge. They don't completely power down, but they function poorly, so the migraineur (the person who has the migraine) begins to have distorted vision and nausea and extreme sensitivity to pain. It's as if the part of the brain that screens out minor pain goes on the fritz. At the same time, the cells in the linings of arteries in the cortex of the brain "give up." They lose their tone. They let the artery expand. This causes intense pain, something like the pain from eating ice cream too fast, only a lot worse. "Zappers" combat this part of the process of having a migraine.
There are two FDA-approved magnet therapies for migraine in the US, available since late 2014. These are "brain zappers." They aren't "brain fryers." 

They operate on very low power, less than you would get from having an MRI, much less than you would get from an X-ray, less than 0.0001 percent of the energy used in a CT scan.

One of these devices is the Cerena Transcranial Migraine Stimulator. Used as soon as a migraine is felt coming on, this device the size of a hair dryer (the kind you use after a shower, not the kind you sit under in a hair salon) is held at the back of the head. It emits a pulse of low-intensity magnetism that is at the frequency needed to stop spreading depression. Because the Cerena is very low-power (you don't want to use high power on your brain), it doesn't work immediately, but it often stops a migraine after about two hours of use. That compares to 72 hours with no treatment at all,.

The Cefaly transcutaneous magnetic stimulation device is used to prevent migraine, rather than to treat it. Twice a day, the user attaches an electrode to the front of the head, for a brief session of pulsating magnetism. This is designed to "stop a migraine before it starts," so that migraines are less frequent or don't occur at all. The Cefaly comes with a built-in timer that keeps sessions to 20 minutes, twice a day.

How well do these treatments work? Many patients swear by them. 

Their results aren't as dramatic as those obtained by Dr Lyss (there was more "zap" in his zapper), but they greatly reduce the frequency of migraines, more than 50 percent. 

Why don't more doctors prescribe these devices? It turns out that they also work when they are turned off, and that's something that science can't explain. (This also happens with magnets used for knee pain.) There is strong evidence of a placebo effect for magnetic devices, but that doesn't mean they won't wortk for you. They don't have side effects, other than making it easier to take a nap, and they are much less expensive than other medical treatments that don't work any better.

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