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Migraine or Face Pain?

Have doctors found the cure for intractable migraines? Find out on this Moment of Science.

If you’ve ever had a migraine headache, you don’t need me to tell you it hurts. Doctors report that about twenty million people suffer from serious headaches, and ten percent of these have intractable pain–meaning it doesn’t go away. But here’s a surprise: the problem isn’t always a migraine. Sometimes very similar symptoms are caused by damage to a nerve of the face, which results in the nerve itself sending nonstop “ouch” signals.

What can be done?

A new treatment being tried out by a few doctors, including Dr. Robert Levy, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, involves zapping with electricity certain nerves that innervate the face. It’s like a marathon in which thousands of runners are crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Someone sends up a firework nearby and for a moment all the distracted runners stop and stare. By hitting the nerves with a mild electrical jolt, you can “distract” the signal-carriers–that is, the pain signals stop crossing the nerves for as long as the electrical charge is on.

So how to do that? Levy and others have inserted a little battery under patients’ collarbones, connected it to a wire that runs under the scalp, and stuck the end directly into the misfiring nerve. Odd as it may sound at first, it works. Patients report that when the device is turned on they are pain-free, sometimes for the first time in years. This kind of nerve stimulation is still in its early days, but the results so far look very promising. For chronic headache sufferers, a little wire can make for blessed peace of mind…not pain of head.

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