A battery-powered gadget the size and shape of an electric shaver may be a new way to treat painful headaches.
Studies suggest the device – which is held against the neck for 90 seconds – may reduce the severity of migraine and cluster headache attacks, and even prevent them.
Researchers say that for some patients the device may be as effective as drugs, without any negative side effects. It has also worked for patients who have not responded to drugs.
Results of the first trials are expected to show a 50 per cent reduction in symptoms in half of patients.
Both migraine and cluster headaches are significant health problems in the UK.
An estimated 5.6 million people have migraine attacks, on average once a month, with three times as many women as men affected. The cause is unknown, but levels of serotonin, the so-called feel-good chemical, drop during a migraine.
Although drug treatments are effective for many patients, they do not work for all and can have side effects.
Cluster headaches, in which the attacks occur in succession or ‘clusters’, are less common, affecting around one in 1,000 people and mostly men. The pain, usually around one eye or the temple, is described by sufferers as excruciating.
The new device, developed by US-based ElectroCore, generates electrical signals and is held against the right side of the neck on the skin above the pulse of the carotid artery. A conductive gel is placed on the device to increase its effectiveness.
The gadget is available in Europe for professional and home use, but a doctor¿s authorisation is required
A small wheel is used to adjust the stimulation until moderate muscle-twitching is felt, with that power maintained for 90 seconds. In severe cases, multiple applications may be required.
Exactly how it works is not clear. One theory is it increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline, which reduces pain perception.
The device is being tested in the US and Europe, including a study of around 50 patients at London’s Royal Free Hospital and a site in Dublin.
The gadget is available in Europe for professional and home use, but a doctor’s authorisation is required. It costs £250 for a device with 150 treatments, and £150 for one with 50 treatments.