It begins with a slight visual disturbance, perhaps, or with an odd olfactory sensation from the nose, or maybe with a feeling of nausea and dizziness. It may quickly progress to a dull, throbbing ache on one or other side of the head, culminating in a full-frontal, pulsating and nerve-wrenching pain that seems to fill the sufferer’s entire conscious world.
Migraine affects about 6 million people in Britain alone. Each and every day they will endure about 190,000 attacks, resulting in something in the region of 25 million days a year lost from work or school. The annual cost to the NHS is approaching £150m in drugs and GP visits, while the wider cost to the economy is estimated to be around £2.25bn.
It can, therefore, only be welcome news that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given its qualified approval to a new treatment for migraine, based on a hand-held machine that delivers a magnetic pulse to the back of the head. No one really knows how the therapy works, but the induced electrical current produced in the brain appears to reduce both the frequency of attacks and their magnitude.
So far, Nice has only given “interventional procedure guidance” on so-called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which means that it is up to the NHS – specifically the clinical commissioning groups – to decide whether it should be funded. On this, too, we can be hopeful. The machines cost £150 a month to rent, so the costs are not too exorbitant.
Sad to say, not everyone will benefit from these magnetic pulses. Indeed, most migraine sufferers may feel no improvement. But for some, the benefit could mean all the difference between days spent prostrate in pain in a darkened room, or going about a normal routine.
And all thanks to what sounds like a quack remedy earning official approval. We can only hope that this is the first of many unconventional treatments for this poorly understood disorder of the brain. We must also hope it is the start of a new, non-invasive approach to migraine, which has for so long had to rely on drugs – and their unwelcome side-effects.