New Device Offers Potential Relief For ‘Suicide Headaches’

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There are headaches, there are migraines, and then there area headaches so painful they’re called “suicide headaches.”

Medically, they’re known as cluster headaches and there’s now a new hope for relief in the form of a battery powered stimulator for the neck.

“Your eyes are going to explode,” cluster headache sufferer Steven Barile says. “You want to put your head in a vice, I’ve done everything from pace to cry from the pain.”

It would be easy to think that Barile’s description of his cluster headaches are an exaggeration, but when you look at drawings online from cluster headache sufferers, you start to get a sense of the intensity of the pain.

Barile learned they’re called cluster headaches because they occur in groups of one or more every day for weeks or months, then disappear for extended periods.

“Cluster pain is short, the attacks are almost always less than 90 minutes,” Director at Montefiore Headache Center Dr. Richard Lipton tells CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez. “Migraine attacks last four to 72 hours, and the associated symptoms are very different so migraine travels with nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, while cluster travels with redness of the eye, drooping of the lid, stuffiness of the nose.”

Now there may be a non-drug, non-interventional way to get relief from the dreaded “suicide headaches.” It’s a small, battery powered external stimulator called gammaCore that’s used as soon as a cluster headache comes on.

“The attacks are incredibly intense, but also brief,” Dr. Lipton said. “So giving a drug that takes a couple of hours to kick in are kind of pointless.”

The gammaCore device is placed over the area of the neck where the vagus nerve travels. It delivers a mild electrical stimulation through the skin to the vagus. The impulses are thought to travel up to the brain stem where they short circuit the headache.

“A couple of double blind studies that show that vagal nerve stimulation really shortens headache attacks and that a large number of people are pain-free 15 minutes after treating with the vagus nerve stimulator,” Dr. Lipton said.

The gammaCore has just been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so it’s expected to be available in the United States this fall. Price has not yet been set, but it is expected to be covered by insurance.

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