static magnetic fields produced by natural or artificial magnets are believed to relieve arthritic pains, help heal wounds and even add to vitality. Several in the medical establishment call such treatments pseudoscientific. Historical records show that magnetic therapy was used as early as the fourth century BC by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates.
A recent study attempts to use magnetic therapy to cure migraines—the neurological condition that alters the very definition of a headache.
When a person suffers from a migraine, the headache itself is the least of his or her troubles. About 20 to 30 per cent of such people have the dull, throbbing pain preceded by disturbed vision, nausea, vomiting and often a blackout.
In a study published in The Lancet Neurology on March 4, Richard B Lipton from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, usa, and his colleagues proposed the use of a handheld device that delivers two pulses of transcranial magnetic stimulation (tms) to treat migraines. The device is applied at the back of the head to deliver short magnetic pulses soon after blurring of vision starts and always within one hour of its onset.
The stage of disturbed vision is also called an aura. Visual aura means seeing spots of light, zigzag lines; non-visual symptoms include tingling and numbness. The magnetic pulse creates an electric current in the nerve cells and derails the migraine in the aural phase.
Migraine victims across 18 centres in the US were made to undergo a single tms treatment for over three months. A device producing no magnetic waves was used in some patients as sham stimulation. The main outcome two hours after the first attack was no pain in 39 per cent of tms patients and 22 per cent of sham treatment patients. Rates of sustained pain-free response after 24 hours were 29 and 16 per cent. “Although the mechanism of a migraine remains under investigation, a single tms decreased progression of the attack. It is promising,” said the authors.
Painkillers and triptans are used for relief in migraines. Overuse can lead to development of tolerance and rebound headaches. The most serious side-effects of triptans are heart attacks and strokes. “Whether this method will prove better than triptans remains to be seen. There are concerns that tms could theoretically trigger seizures and it should not be used in epilepsy,” said neurologist Hans-Christoph Diener from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. More research, however, is warranted because this trial led to pain relief but was unsuccessful in reducing a moderate headache to a mild one.
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