Cluster headaches are in the news because Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has the misfortune to suffer from them. While the “typical” patient may be a young man like Radcliffe, cluster headaches can present for the first time in mid-life or even advanced old age in both men and women (up to four percent of elderly patients in headache clinics). Fortunately, doctors are now testing an implantable neurostimulator to manage the pain.
“Cluster headache is one of the most severe and disabling chronic pain conditions known to humankind,” says Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Neuroscience program at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. Working with device manufacturer Autonomic Technologies, Inc., he and his colleagues are developing a neurostimulator system to block pain signals from the sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG). The normal role of this cluster of nerves is simply to allow the face to be sensitive to touch and other sensations, but it can also be the source of excruciating pain, resulting from conditions ranging from shingles to migraines and cluster headaches.
One of the most common current treatments is an SPG block, in which anesthetic is injected near the SPG. By contrast, this new approach requires surgery to implant a stimulator, which patients activate with a handheld controller at the first sign of pain.
The system has been successfully deployed in Europe, but has not yet been approved in the United States. Currently, Ohio State is enrolling cluster headache patients for an ongoing clinical trial. A migraine trial with the device is open in Europe.