Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Treat Migraines

A migraine study that used a device designed to stimulate the vagus nerve

Consider Easing Your Migraine with a Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulator. David De Lossy/Getty Images

Despite the wide range of migraine therapies out there, people still suffer from this debilitating neurological condition. One exciting, novel migraine treatment currently being studied is a hand-held device designed to electrically stimulate the vagus nerve in your neck through the skin.

A better understanding of the benefit of this migraine therapy is underway, but here are results from a preliminary study in Cephalalgia.

Study Methods

Thirty migraineurs (25 female, 5 male, median age 39) with and without aura were invited to participate in the study. The participants were asked to treat up to four acute migraine attacks with the device within a six week period. They were asked to use the device for migraines that were characterized as causing moderate or severe headache pain, or if they suffered from mild headache pain for more than 20 minutes.

Treatment consisted of two, 90-second doses at 15-minute intervals delivered to the right cervical branch of the vagus nerve, which is located in the neck.

The participants recorded information about their migraine attacks and the device in a diary. Here was the data recorded:

  • Headache pain: none, mild, moderate, severe
  • Nausea: none, mild, moderate, severe
  • Presence of photophobia or phonophobia
  • Functional disability on a four-point scale
  • Ease of use of the device on a four-point scale
  • Subject satisfaction
  • Duration of treatment effects
  • Adverse events (onset, type, severity, frequency)

Device Side Effects

13/ of the 28 patients reported an adverse effect. None were serious. The most relevant, per the study's authors, were:

  • Neck twitching (1 participant
  • Raspy voice (1 participant)
  • Redness over the site (1 participant)

    Study Results

    Of the 30 participants, two treated zero attacks and one treated an aura only and recorded no headache data. So at the end of the study, there were 27 participants who treated a total of 80 migraine attacks.

    • For patients with a baseline of moderate or severe headache pain, 9 of 19 reported pain relief (47 percent) after using the device, and 4 out of 19 reported being pain-free two hours after treatment (21 percent). 5 of 8 patients with baseline mild headache pain were pain-free two hours after treatment (63 percent).
    • In 29 of the 80 migraine attacks, there was nausea, with 11 (38 percent) having relief after two hours post-device use.
    • In 54 of the 80 migraine attacks, there was photophobia, with 30 percent noting relief after two hours of using the device.
    • In 33 of the 80 migraine attacks, there was phonophobia, with 52 percent noting relief after two hours of using the device.

    What Does This Mean?

    The idea of a non-invasive, portable, and well-tolerated migraine-treating device is exciting. For one, it may appeal to people who dread taking medications or for those who do not benefit from medication. Secondly, it could prevent the onset of medication-overuse headaches, which is common with migraine therapies.

    That being said, this is still experimental and is not an FDA-approved therapy. Larger randomized controlled trials need to be done to determine its benefit.

    Regardless, please seek out the guidance of a headache specialist if you are suffering from migraines that are not better with usual medications or treatments. There are lots of therapy options out there -- remain proactive and persistent in your migraine health.

    View Article Sources
    • Goadsby PJ, Grosberg BM, Mauskop A, Cady R, Simmons KA. Effect of noninvasive vagus nerve stimulation on acute migraine: an open-label pilot study. Cephalalgia. 2014 Oct;34(12):986-93.