Why you should care
If you’re alive in the 21st century, there’s an odds-on chance that your head is hurting right now. You need a long-term solution to a long-term problem.
Statistics say little more than half of us will escape the scourge of a headache this year; 47 percent of us can expect the pulsing surge of pain and discomfort that are the bellwethers of headache misery. The National Institutes of Health estimates that about 12 percent of the U.S. population gets the worst kind of headaches: the dreaded migraine. Or, as the French call it, the “get the hell out of here before I kill you all”-ache. Over half of sufferers report one or more attacks a month, and women (18 percent) are more likely than men (8 percent) to suffer from this most extreme form of headache.
Cue the implanted electrical stimulator.
With a reported 80% drop in pain levels, the implant might be well worth the $22,000 projected price tag.
Researchers have installed pulse generators in chronic migraine sufferers to stimulate the occipital nerve and interrupt pain. The device is implanted in the buttocks, chest or abdomen and stimulates the occipital nerve at the back of the head when nerve patterns suggest a headache is coming on.
So, it goes like this: Your boss calls you into her office. She indicates that you seem a little tense and she’d like you to relax a little. After all, a happy worker is a relaxed worker. She pauses, looks down at some papers, and then suggests that you also need to work harder. Your occipital nerve starts jumping like a disco. Under ordinary circumstances, you might be well on your way to migraine land. But your implant starts pulsing low-frequency electrical impulses to the part of the brain, the thalamus, where headaches live.
According to surgeon and friend of OZY Dr. Steven Ballinger, this works because “you’re screwing with the signal-to-noise ratio, and the brain suddenly has a lot more to focus on and stops processing the pain.” Nice. With a reported 80 percent drop in pain levels, the implant might be well worth the $22,000 projected price tag, which otherwise might itself trigger a headache. And it’s a damn bit nicer than the ancient remedy of punching holes in the skull, which was believed to relieve pressure and release the demons that caused the headaches.
Even with what seems to be fairly high rates of happy patients in Europe, the FDA has granted only investigative use of the neurostimulation system in the United States. It seems that concerns over the Matrix-esque jacking into the gray matter has made officials favor the go-slow school. The Mayo Clinic cautions that occipital nerve stimulation studies so far have been small, and only short-term. Peter Goadsby, a long-time researcher on the procedure, formerly at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and now at the UCSF Medical Center, recently noted that it may turn out patients are more comfortable with noninvasive nerve stimulators. “The nice thing about external devices,” says Goadsby, ”is if they don’t work, [the patient] can give them back.” It remains to be seen if this new development will spur FDA approval: fine for those who believe an ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure, not so great for those whose heads are pounding like conga drums at the prospect of having to wait a minute more.
Well, if all else fails, there’s always the sex-headache cure, which, while a tad inconvenient in the workplace, just might work at home.