People with severe headaches are often desperate enough to contemplate surgery, such as stimulator placement. When should you consider stimulators?
Get a proper diagnosis first. Doing treatment before a diagnosis is putting the cart before the horse. AMF can provide names of board-certified headache specialists or members of the American Headache Society.
Treatment before surgery
With a specific diagnosis, try daily medications, sometimes in combination with non-drug therapy, behavioral and physical. Diagnosis and orthodox treatment with pre-set goals usually works without surgery.
Surgery is usually done for some form of daily headaches. Short, sharp headaches occur less than four hours per day, the trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TACs), such as cluster headache. Or the headaches can be difficult-to-treat forms of chronic migraine (CM), headaches at least 15 days per month, at least 4 hours per day.
TACs, especially cluster, can be very severe, and disabling, and resistant to therapy, After exhausting conventional medications, cluster surgery can be reasonable.
CM treatment offers additional interventions before surgery. Medication overuse headache (MOH) must be identified, and overused medications completely weaned. Medication rebound should be a 100% contraindication to surgery, there is no substitute for weaning off medication rebound.
OnabotulinumtoxinA is FDA-approved for CM, and should be administered according to the FDA-approved protocol by a specifically trained headache specialist before considering surgery.
Inpatient or day-hospital structured headache programs are also available. All are multi-week programs involving headache medicine specialists, psychology, infusions, physical therapies, and other disciplines. Patients with CM and MOH should go through one of these programs before contemplating surgery.
Stimulators and headache
Stimulators include occipital nerve stimulators (ONS), deep brain stimulators (DBS), and sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) stimulators. None is FDA-approved for primary headaches; these three stimulators, as well as others, are being studied.
Occipital nerve stimulators (ONS)
In the European Union, device approval is faster and more streamlined than in the US. In Sept 2011, an ONS was given a CE Mark, a European regulatory approval, for CM. This device consists of wires surgically placed at the back of the skull and neck, with another wire going to a battery implanted in the chest, like a pacemaker. The European-approved ONS found 41% improvement after 12 weeks of stimulation, compared to 13% improvement in controls. Thus, ONS does not eliminate daily headaches, but rather decreases them. Studies on ONS for cluster and related TACs also show promise.