Application of electricity through transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to certain regions of the brain of a patient with trigeminal neuralgia, a condition involving severe facial pain, has been shown to release an opiate-like substance called mu-opioid. This is the same substance targeted by many pain medications, including morphine, and is considered one of the body’s most powerful painkillers.
This case study builds on earlier research initially conducted on chronic migraine patients, making it highly relevant to many members of our Migraine.com community, myself included, as well as those who live with trigeminal neuralgia in addition to migraine disease.
tDCS is an extremely mild electrical current. To help put it in perspective, note that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is used to treat resistant psychiatric disorders, applies between 200 and 1600 milliamperes. tDCS applies just 2 milliamperes.
Electrodes were applied to the study participant’s head and her skull was electrically stimulated using tDCS for 20 minutes during a PET scan. A radiotracer able to reach the areas of the brain affected by trigeminal neuralgia was used to measure the brain’s release of mu-opioid.
The researchers determined that multiple sessions of tDCS are necessary to create the release of the opiate-like chemical. A single application of tDCS actually decreased the patient’s ability to tolerate the pain of trigeminal neuralgia.
A crucial limitation of this research is the fact that only one patient was included in the study. If this research holds up in larger studies, it could not only provide an additional option for patients dealing with conditions like trigeminal neuralgia, chronic migraine and fibromyalgia, but also reduce the need for these patients to use pain killing medications, which can be fraught with complications when used long term.
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