Magnets “zap” headaches

…according to a new Nature News story.

Migraine sufferers might soon be able to block an imminent attack using a device that targets the brain with a powerful magnetic field.

The technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), triggers activity in the brain’s nerve cells and is already being tested as a way to treat depression. Two small clinical trials have now shown that delivering TMS to the brain in the early stages of a migraine seems to halt it in its tracks.

Since I’ve dealt with migraines for a long time, this sounds great (though I’ll note that the research hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the number of patients reporting an improvement from placebo alone was quite high, so I’ll remain skeptical until more evidence rolls in). But I can already see it being touted by the magnet-bracelet-cure-all people as proof that their product works.


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    June 26, 2006

    You’re not the only one who’s sceptical: there’s a discussion about it on the Bad Science fora.


  2. #2 Stephen Uitti
    June 26, 2006

    I’m with Steve Martin on this one. If placebo is so good, then i want a double strength placebo.

    Caveat: i don’t get migraines. Perhaps it’s my magnetic personality.

    I only get regular headaches about every four or five weeks.

    Sometimes, i can get my headache to go away with a plain glass of water.

  3. #3 Nathan E.
    June 26, 2006

    It didn’t say in the article, but perhaps you may have more insight…but do you know if this is the same technique as stimulation of the vega nerve? I was watching a recent show on Discovery Health on it, but didn’t refer to it as TMS.

  4. #4 Chuck the Lucky
    June 27, 2006

    I can kind of understand using magnetic fields to treat depression (though still skeptical) since it could effect the electrical signals in the brain but aren’t migraines mainly a vascular issue outside the brain? Maybe it works on the nerves being impacted by the vessels or something.

    The use of fields and electroshock to fix things always reminds me of an old Dr. Who episode where the Doctor said that you can always identify human technology in any time period because if it stops working you can fix it by hitting it on the side. It is difficult to believe that something as unsubtle as an application of a field can put things right.

  5. #5 Chris Noble
    June 27, 2006

    TMS has already been touted by the magnetic-golf-shoe-brigade for some time.

    In contrast to the bracelets it has a physically plausible mode of action. The extremely stong time dependent magnetic fields induce electric fields in the brain that are strong enough to trigger the firing of neurons. It amounts to essentially the same thing as electrically stimulating the brain. The advantage is that the magnetic fields can be focussed to stimulate specific areas of the brain. Nevertheless, it is still a fairly crude technique like electroshock therapy for depression. It may alleviate syptoms but is it really a good idea?

  6. #6 anon
    June 28, 2006

    A neurologist I know, who treats migraines, described TMS as “a hammer in search of a nail”.

  7. #7 David Harmon
    June 28, 2006

    This is actually not too implausible — IIRC, migraines apparently represent a seizure-like process in the brain, and even a fairly broad electromagnetic “kick” could well disrupt the process. Side effects would presumably be much milder than electroshock, and there’s no surgical trauma nor drug side-effects to worry about. Certainly it’s something that’s worth investigating, but of course “could” != “does”…. (Also, the prices I’ve heard for TMS are insane, considering you’re basically talking about high-power electromagnets!)

  8. #8 frumiousb
    June 28, 2006

    The key difference between TMS and magnet jewelry is that TMS is time dependant. There is a big difference between static and dynamic fields. Time-dependant magnetic fields are accompanied by time-dependant electric fields. Completely different from a static field. Wikipedia has a description of TMS. I don’t know if it’s an accurate description, but at least they have some links for people to follow.

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