Electrical Stimulation Releases Opiate-Like Substance in Pain, Migraine Patients

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
1. Marcos Fabio Dos Santos, Tiffany M. Love, Ilkka Kristian Martikainen, Thiago Dias Nascimento, Felipe Fregni, Chelsea Cummiford, Misty Dawn Deboer, Jon-Kar Zubieta, Alexandre F. M. DaSilva, “Immediate effects of tDCS on the μ-opioid system of a chronic pain patient,” Frontiers in Psychiatric Imaging and Stimulation Vol. 3, November 2012, doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00093, http://www.frontiersin.org/Neuropsychiatric_Imaging_and_Stimulation/10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00093/full, accessed January 18, 2013. 2. “Electric stimulation of brain releases powerful, opiate-like painkiller,” University of Michigan press release, http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/21053-electric-stimulation-of-brain-releases-powerful-opiate-like-painkiller, accessed January 18, 2013. 3. “Electric Stimulation of Brain Releases Powerful, Opiate-Like Painkiller,” Science Daily, January 2, 2013, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130102104553.htm, accessed January 18, 2013. 4. Alexandre F. DaSilva, Mariana E. Mendonca, Soroush Zaghi, Mariana Lopes, Marcos Fabio DosSantos, Egilius L. Spierings, Zahid Bajwa, Abhishek Datta, Marom Bikson and Felipe Fregni, “tDCS-Induced Analgesia and Electrical Fields in Pain-Related Neural Networks in Chronic Migraine,” Headache Vol. 52, September 2012, p. 1283-1295, DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02141.x, accessed January 18, 2013.


View Comments (2)
  • kristyd
    6 years ago

    Does this mean that you have to go to the doctor/hospital every time you have a migraine so that this can be performed? That could get quite expensive.

  • Diana-Lee author
    6 years ago

    That’s an excellent question, kristyd. At this point, tDCS is only FDA approved for one condition, to my knowledge: something called Iontophoresis. According to my research, there are a few portable units available for patients using tDCS for the condition. I hope this helps, and thanks for a great question!

  • Poll