From the Magazine

This Simple Device Helped End One Woman’s Decades-Long Struggle With Migraines

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What happened? Angelia White’s mind swirled, as she woke up on the floor in her military barracks in 1993. The last thing she remembered was a pounding headache. Angelia had suddenly started experiencing migraines a few months earlier. Sometimes, she would also have temporary vision loss and nausea. But she had never blacked out before…panic coursed through her.

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“After that episode, the migraines intensified, in pain and duration. I would have to stay in bed, in a room that was completely dark and quiet, for days at a time,” she explained. “Because I was unable to perform my duties, the Army medical board determined I was not healthy enough to continue in the military and I was given a medical discharge. I was absolutely devastated. I had dreamed of a military career since childhood.

“Over the next couple of years, my migraines became so frequent and intense that I had to spend entire months in bed. Migraines robbed me of all the things I enjoyed in life. I couldn’t go out with friends. I couldn’t concentrate to hold a conversation, read even a page of a book or work on my beloved hobby of cross-stitch.

“But what bothered me most was the impact on my family. My husband and son had to take on all the household chores. I would swing from feeling sorry for myself and angry to terribly guilty. Depression set in, and I had days that I wished I’d go to sleep and never wake up.

“Years grew into decades as I bounced from doctor to doctor, never finding a cause. They suggested over-the-counter and prescription pain and anti-nausea medicines, which offered a little relief, but didn’t last long. Botox shots, essential oils, and wearing sunglasses in the house also failed to help.

“Prayer was the only thing that kept me going. Whenever possible, I would go to church, and it was there that, one Sunday in 2019, I found my salvation.”

What is vagus nerve stimulation?

“After church services, I was talking to a woman and shared my feelings of hopelessness about my health situation. ‘No, you must not give up,’ she told me, and urged me to seek out just one more specialist.

“Her compassion deeply touched me, and I decided to take her advice. I found a new doctor who suggested I try a treatment called gammaCore (nVNS), a handheld device a little bigger than a credit card that activates the vagus nerve — which plays a key role in regulating pain — with gentle electrical stimulation.

“Unlike traditional vagus nerve stimulation that requires a device be implanted in the neck, gammaCore stimulates the nerve non-invasively through the skin. The doctor assured me that the device (covered by insurance) is so easy to use, I would be able to give myself treatments anytime, simply by holding it on the spot just under the jaw on the left-to-middle of my neck, where the vagus nerve descends. Best of all, it would be painless.

“Hopeful, I ordered the device and started doing 10- to 15-minute treatments as a preventive, first thing in the morning, again in the afternoon and then before bed, as well as any time I felt a migraine coming on. Within days, I noticed the intensity of my migraine pain begin to lessen and the attacks were shorter in duration.

“After just about one month, I was able to regularly make dinner for my family and start to once again enjoy other normal activities, like cross-stitch and getting together with friends. Excited, I continued using the device, and my symptoms got better and better. Today, I am thrilled to say that if I do get a migraine, it’s fleeting.

“I would have never thought I’d look forward to ordinary tasks, like stopping for a gallon of milk or going to pick up the mail, but doing even these simple things without extreme pain is amazing. I finally have my life back—what an answered prayer!”

Could this stimulation heal Covid-19 too?

On top of treating migraines, there may be another big benefit to vagus nerve stimulation. “Researching the health benefits of vagus nerve stimulation is one of the greatest frontiers of medicine right now,” says Peter Staats, MD, a specialist in pain medicine who co-founded the company that makes gammaCore (nVNS), the device used by Angelia.

While his team found that vagus nerve stimulation stops migraine pain by regulating the abnormal electrical activity in the brain, the gammaCore device has also been authorized by the FDA to treat Covid-19 symptoms. “The vagus nerve is the control center for inflammation,” asserts Dr. Staats, who explains that with most illness, including COVID, inflammation is often to blame. But stimulating the nerve helps turn down the inflammatory response, preventing the “cytokine storm” that can worsen COVID, and tamps down inflammation in the lungs to keep airways open.

That’s great news all around!

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First for Women.

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