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What’s New in Migraine Research?

I just returned from this year’s European Federation of Neurological Sciences meeting where thousands of neurologists from all over the world gather to discuss their latest research. It’s an exciting opportunity to hear about what’s new—usually months to a year before that same research will make it into medical journals.

Here’s a summary of some of the new research that was presented:

Migraine mechanisms

  • Doctors believe that migraine occurs because the brain’s nerves are revved up to be extra-sensitive to pain and other signals. This is called central sensitization. The amount of central sensitization you have can be measured by recording the occurrence of allodynia during attacks. Examples of allodynia are things like your hair hurting with a migraine, or glasses or earrings hurting, or your skin feeling extra sensitive to touch or pressure. Dr. Baldacci from Italy reported that people who had more symptoms of allodynia usually were also more sensitive to migraine triggers. The most common trigger was stress. Stress, sleep deprivation, and weather changes were equally likely to be reported as triggers by people with moderate to severe allodynia and those with only mild or no allodynia. People with moderate to severe allodynia, however, were more likely to have migraine triggered by hormonal changes, fatigue, lights, smells, noise, cold, food, and alcohol. So if you experience a lot of allodynia symptoms, you may have to work harder to reduce the impact of potential migraine triggers.
  • Dr. Jensen from Denmark investigated central sensitization in people with medication overuse headache. People who had been overusing medications were more sensitive to pain. Their pain threshold was about 20 percent lower than expected. After overused medications were discontinued, pain threshold returned to normal levels, showing that the central sensitization that occurs with medication overuse can be reversed by stopping excess medications.

Non-drug treatment

  • Dr. Ventura from Brazil investigated the relationship between regular exercise and recurring headaches in 285 students. Regular exercise was defined as exercising for 30 minutes at least 2 days per week. Recurring headache was almost twice as common in people who didn’t exercise regularly. Recurring headaches were reported by 38 percent of exercisers and 66 percent of non-exercisers. This effect was strongest in males.
  • Dr. Libera from Italy reported successful migraine reduction using frontal repetitive transcranial stimulation. Patients had previously failed to respond to traditional migraine therapies. Twenty-two migraineurs were treated with stimulation for ten minutes, three times a week, for six weeks. Migraine frequency and severity decreased by half in 45 percent of people. Migraine decreased by 20 to 40 percent in 32 percent of people. And there were 23 percent without any benefit.

Natural treatment

  • Dr. Saeidi from Iran presented data from lavender oil used to treat migraine in 34 people. Two to three drops of the oil were placed above the upper lip and people were instructed to inhale vapors for 15 minutes during a migraine. Pain severity was measured using a zero (no pain) to ten (severe pain) scale. Pain decreased by 3.6 points after 2 hours among those who used lavender oil. Pain dropped by 1.6 points among treating with an inactive placebo.

Drug treatment

  • When tryptophan breaks down, it produces the compound kynurenic acid, which can affect the nervous system. Researchers showed that a kynurenic acid-like drug, called SZR-81, decreased central sensitization and inflammation in the trigeminal system rats. Because sensitization and inflammation of the trigeminal system is believed to be important for human migraine, this may suggest a possible new treatment.

Women’s issues

  • As we discuss in The Woman’s Migraine Toolkit, breastfeeding is important for the health of both the developing baby and new mother. Breastfeeding also delays the return on migraine in mothers who had decreased migraines during pregnancy. Dr. Knežević-Pogancev from Serbia studied the onset of migraine in almost 31,000 school children. Exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life delayed the onset of migraine in these children, with migraine occurring earlier among those breastfeed for only 4 or fewer months. Breastfeeding didn’t prevent migraine from occurring, but it did delay the onset.
  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women. Dr. Ghorbani from Iran presented data linking migraine with a lower risk for breast cancer. A total of 325 people with breast cancer and 325 without breast cancer were investigated. Migraine without aura occurred in 11 percent with breast cancer and 13 percent without breast cancer. Migraine with aura occurred in 8 percent with breast cancer and 25 percent who were cancer-free.

These research studies may provide important advancements for better understanding why and how migraine occurs and new strategies for better treatments.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Kat
    6 years ago

    When I was in the hospital being evaluated for a possible stroke or blood clot that, thankfully, turned out to be negative, I had a rip-roaring migraine. An aide came to my room to take me down for an MRI. As the machine’s motor was turned on I was thinking about getting back to my room and requesting Zomig. Then the first zap occurred to take the first image of my brain.

    Instantly, the migraine stopped. As each zap continued my body relaxed more and more. When the technologist pulled me out to add contrast, I told her what had happened and asked her if she knew of anyone researching this connection. She did not. The migraine did not return. Since I was not expecting this to happen it could not have been psychological. I WANT ONE OF THESE MACHINES IN MY HOUSE!

    Has anyone done any research on this? If so, how far along is this research? Just think. No drugs of any kind. Big pharma wouldn’t go for that, would they? Just some little device to have on hand with which to zap one’s self without resorting to all of these different drugs that we all rely on to prevent and stop these monster headaches.

  • Dr Marcus author
    7 years ago

    People with many types of chronic pain, including medication overuse headaches, become more sensitive to pain as their nervous systems are bombarded with pain messages repeatedly. This phenomenon is called central sensitization. You may also hear people talk about “wind-up” which is a way to actually watch this happening by repeatedly stimulating nerves in the laboratory. When this happens, people have a change in their pain threshold — this means that when a researcher stabs then with a pin, they can detect that it’s a sharp and painful pin at a lower pressure than is required for someone who doesn’t have chronic pain.

    This change in pain threshold is found very consistently among people with chronic pain problems. Having a lowered pain threshold, however, does not mean that you have a poor pain tolerance. Just because your body can detect pain doesn’t mean you negatively respond to it. I often here people with chronic pain like medication overuse headaches and fibromyalgia tell me they tolerate more pain than anyone they know, often saying they have a “high pain threshold.” What they probably mean is not that they don’t sense pain has occurred (which is the pain threshold), but that they have a high pain tolerance, meaning they’ve learned to put up with a lot.

    What Dr. Jensen’s research shows is that, if you can decrease pain signalling, you can lower the body’s extra sensitivity to pain. This means your brain and nerves will not longer be as revved up to detect and respond to pain messages.

  • jerry_phil
    7 years ago

    Hi Dr. Marcus! I am Jerry, 28 yrs. old. I had suffered from Migraine which I considered as Chronic( if that is the correct type). I am always interested in reading articles when it comes to Migraine and I find it different on my own case of migraine attacks. To record the date of: 1st attack-2004, 2nd attack-march 2006, 3rd attack-feb.2008, 4th attack-june 2010. All the characteristics of Migraine given are all true which could lead you sometimes to depression that you might want to end your life so that you will not feel the pain. In my case, on the 3rd and 4th attack; I experienced that my left head has a bit swelling and keeps on sweating cold feels like half of your head is paralyzed, pain is continuously pounding like needles pinning on your head. It takes me a month to recover from Migraine and also I undergo a CT Scans both on third and last attack, thankfully the outcome of CT Scan is negative. Once you suffered Migraine, you always anticipate that it might occur anytime which is really bad and you have to embrace it. Maybe you could also help me explain why does my head swollen and sweating cold only the affected part. I’m always afraid maybe it will happen again to me that’s why I’m taking precaution now. One more thing, one of the bad effect of Migraine to me is that I could not be able to sleep turning on left side position because the air passage from my nose will clogged which I could not breath freely and it may trigger migraine again that’s why im taking sleep on right side or in straight position. Is there any medical explanation on this? Thank you for taking time in reading my side.

  • taralane
    7 years ago

    I am also interested in the Trytophan research – does that mean that putting more turkey in my diet may keep my daily migraines down? Wouldn’t that be lovely!

    However, I was very skeptical about the comments you reported from Dr Jensen from Denmark concerning (MOH) or what I continue to call rebound headaches because that is what they are. I have had chronic daily migraines for 44 years, and have taken many medications – at high doses because my migraine neuro was having no success at the lower levels. I cannot agree that migraineurs who have rebound headaches from a particular rx are or “tend” (and tend covers a lot of ground so I would like that quantified) to be more sensitive to pain. In fact, I would say that migraineurs as a group have among the highest tolerance for pain, along with those who have fibromyalgia and other serious chronic pain issues. I get rebound migraines from medications not because I overuse them, but because my body stops accepting the medication to override the pain, and then either another tx is required, or I simply have to wait out the rebound, which can be another 2-3 days of a #8-9 migraine while the rebound med. gets out of my system. I have been through this enough times with enough medications to know that no medication for migraine will work indefinitely. Most have a range within which they are useful, and then, one day, they are not. I am particularly careful not to use any medication too often just for this reason, and my pain tolerance is very high, especially when I go to other docs who tell me a shot or biopsy is going to hurt, and I never flinch.

    I also want to say than not all medications that cause rebounds can be brought back in after discontinued use. My personal experience has been that if the med stops working, it is done. When I have gone back to try it again, the reaction is still the same. My only caveat to that is that I am now looking at some rescue meds that I took in the late 80’s, simply because we have run out of rescue meds that work. I would like to know how much time was allowed before going back to a med that caused the rebound. Prednisone worked for me once, and once only. Later attempts to get the same pain relief effect have been unsuccessful. Same for some of the triptans – specifically Maxalt, Imitrex and Relpax which both have worked only once for me.

    If someone is overusing Excedrin Migraine which contains so much caffeine that it will cause another migraine simply because caffeine is a migraine trigger, then I understand the report. As reported, however, it is interesting but misleading to the migraine community as a whole.

  • janenez
    7 years ago

    “My personal experience has been that if the med stops working, it is done.” I have this same experience – and the “once and done” experience also with certain meds. Thanks for sharing that – I thought I was the only one.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    7 years ago

    Such exciting news – thank you so much for sharing it with us! You can be sure I’ll be spreading the good word. Am especially interested in the Tryptophan research. Can you (perhaps later?) elaborate any more on this particular bit of information?

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