Flicking a switch can ease cluster headaches

London: Just flicking a switch can now ease the agony of cluster headaches, claims an Indian-origin doctor-led team which has pioneered the new method of dealing with the debilitating condition.

Dr Manjit Matharu and his team at National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London says that sufferers can now ease their pain using a hand-held remote control which sends a charge to an electrode implanted in the head.

Cluster headaches are concentrated attacks of pain on one side of the head. Each attack develops suddenly, usually without any warning. The pain can strike several times a day and attacks usually last between 15 minutes and three hours.

It is not known what causes cluster headaches. Until recently, sufferers were given drugs to relieve the pain. In acute cases, some patients had anaesthetic injected into the occipital nerve, which runs from the top of the spine to the scalp and is responsible for communicating pain to the brain.

According to the doctors, the latest technique, known as Occipital Nerve Stimulation (ONS), works on the same nerve.

The procedure involves two tiny electrodes being inserted at the back of the head — one under each branch of the nerve, either side of the head, a newspaper reported.

Then, under general anaesthetic, an electricity generator, the size of a thin pocketwatch, is implanted into the skin in either abdomen or upper chest. This is connected by wires tunnelled under the skin to the electrodes.

After an overnight stay, the generator is switched on and patients can usually go home the next day. The electrical current is controlled by a small remote control carried by patients, say the doctors.

The device lasts indefinitely but batteries will need changing after eight years. There are no major side effects, although some patients have reported some temporary, localised pain where the generator is placed.

Dr Matharu`s team has treated 150 patients suffering with extreme headaches and observed positive results.

"We are seeing success rates of about 80 per cent in people who`re not responding to other traditional treatments. No one knows when NICE is going to review the treatment, but it is possible to be referred to us if the pain is severe enough," Dr Matharu said.