Helen Powell started suffering with debilitating migraines as a teenager and they continued to blight her life for more than forty years. After years of failed treatments and medications – including a series of nerve-block injections – Helen came to see Dr Nicholas Silver, Consultant Neurologist at Spire Cheshire Hospital and found long-term relief thanks to a hand-held device that fires an electric current into nerves in the neck.
“I really can’t believe how something so simple can have transformed my life,” said the former air stewardess from Holmes Chapel. Migraines have virtually ruled my life. They caused me to stop working because I had to take so much time off and at one stage I was spending four days a week confined to my bed because the pain was so overpowering."
Helen, 61, was finally referred to Consultant Neurologist Dr Nicholas Silver at Spire Cheshire Hospital who diagnosed her as suffering from hemicrania continua - a chronic headache disorder.
He explained: “Helen was in a desperate state, her headaches had steadily become more severe and more frequent. The pain was to the right side of her head behind the eye and the temple, a stabbing pain combined with a throbbing pressure in the eye".
“I was aware of the various painkillers and treatments she had been given in the past and thought that it would be worth her trying a relatively new device known as gammaCore which transmits mild electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve in the neck.”
Helen said: “I look back at my old life and shudder, I have missed out on so many things. My daughter Lucinda, was recently riding in the British Dressage National Championships and I was there to cheer her on. Before I began using the gammaCore I just wouldn’t have been able to do that."
“In May my sister was 60. Lucinda and I went on a cruise around the Med with her – it was fabulous. We saw the sights, we sunbathed went to the shows and really burnt the candle at both ends and I didn’t get a single headache!”
Dr Silver explained that hemicrania continua is a primary headache disorder which shares some similarities with both migraine and cluster headache and is far more common than people realised.
“Unfortunately the condition is often mistaken for migraine but sufferers typically fail to respond to conventional migraine treatments” he said.
A predominantly one-sided and persistent headache causing jabbing and stabbing pains along with a degree of restlessness and agitation, hemicranias continua also causes red, runny, puffy and droopy eyes, blocked and running nose, fullness in the ear, tinnitus, flushing and sweating.
“While the textbooks say sufferers should respond to a medication called indomethacin that is similar to aspirin, I have found that, for many patients, this treatment is either of no benefit or is poorly tolerated."
“However, many patients do respond to the typical first line therapy of local nerve block injections around the head and face that can often be repeated successfully a few times each year to provide good control and relief,” said Dr Silver.
He added: “My early experience of gammaCore is that is can significantly benefit about half of the patients that try it – which is a similar number to those seen in the recent international clinical trials of cluster headache.”
"The vagus nerves in the neck send some signals from the brain to control functions such as gastric secretions and heart rate. However, the main part of the nerve takes signals from the body and sends them to the brain, forming part of the pathway involved in the generation of headache disorders."
"The device, about the size of a woman’s electric razor, works by very safely transmitting very small electrical impulses towards the brain which modulates the way nerves ‘talk to each other’, helping to switch off some of the ‘abnormal circuits’ that contribute towards headaches and associated symptoms."
“To be absolutely honest this machine has transformed my life,” said Helen. “I wake up every morning feeling fine, my head is clear and I am looking forward to the day ahead. Dr Silver has given me back my life and I will be forever grateful. I now have a really positive feeling about my future and where life is going to take me.”