Retro-style headphones that heat one ear while cooling the other could help to prevent migraines.
Patients who wore them for just 30 minutes a day over a three-month period suffered half their usual number of attacks, and were also able to cut down their use of preventive drugs, according to a new study.
Researchers believe that the experimental device affects the nerves in the ear, leading to changes in part of the brain stem thought to be involved in the triggering of migraines.
Heating one ear to 42C while cooling the other to 17C could help to prevent migraines
The different temperatures – 42C in one ear and 17C in the other – are delivered through aluminium earpieces inside the padded headphones.
‘People do not like taking migraine medication, and many stop taking it, so there is a real need for non-drug treatments that are effective,’ said psychologist Dr David Wilkinson, of Kent University, who led the study.
‘We have shown that wearing this device significantly reduces the number of migraines, pain levels, and the need for migraine prescription medications.
‘Treatment can be self-administered at home with no technical expertise and also very little training.’
Although the device is not yet available to buy, experts hope the findings will pave the way for further research.
Migraines affect about one in ten people and symptoms include intense pulsing or throbbing pain in one area of the head, which may be accompanied by nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.
Symptoms can last from four to 72 hours when left untreated.
The exact cause of migraines is not known, but they are thought to result from abnormal brain activity temporarily affecting nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels.
Sufferers report that attacks have specific triggers, which range from some foods and smells to flashing lights and specific patterns.
Treatments include taking painkillers or drugs called triptans, which work by stimulating the brain chemical serotonin to reduce inflammation and constrict blood vessels.
However, there are side effects to using triptans, including tingling, flushing and feelings of heaviness in the face, limbs or chest. One theory is that the migraine may be linked to some kind of dysfunction in the brain stem. A study at Sydney University found differences in the brain stem region between migraine sufferers and non-sufferers.
The new device harnesses a technique known as caloric vestibular stimulation (CVS) to prevent attacks.
Some small, exploratory studies have previously shown that CVS reduces pain during migraine attacks, but it has not been used before as a treatment.
In a trial involving 81 patients who suffered up to 14 migraines a month, those using the device reported far better results than another group using a placebo.
Headache pain plummeted and there was also a 51.3 per cent fall in use of anti-migraine prescription medication.
The active treatment group suffered fewer attacks, and almost all said they were happy to continue using the device.
Another study is under way at Kent University which shows that the same stimulation procedure can reduce symptoms in stroke patients.