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Easing Migraine Symptoms with a Simple Puff of Air into the Ear

A steady stream of air into the ear may soon be key to easing migraine symptoms. Scientists have set up clinical trials to test a theory that air can stimulate a nerve in the face which can interrupt signals from reaching part of the brain that processes pain. Researchers say if the theory holds true, this new pain management tool can be revolutionary for migraine patients.

Migraines affect millions of people worldwide, and are often accompanied with symptoms like nausea, vomiting or fatigue. Attacks can be triggered by certain smells, bright lights or hormonal changes. However, the exact cause is not fully understood.

Causes of Migraines

One theory is that migraines are caused by blood vessels in the brain widening — a common treatment for migraine is with drugs known as triptans, which make the blood vessels narrower. Another theory is that migraine is the result of brain cells activating the trigeminal nerve, one of the main nerves in the face and which relays pain signals to the brain. This causes the release of chemicals which then irritate and cause blood vessels on the surface of the brain to swell. These swollen blood vessels send signals to the brainstem, an area that processes pain information.

There are now a number of migraine therapies that are designed to stimulate the trigeminal nerve and stop the pain signals reaching the brain, reducing symptoms. The rationale behind the new technique, known as modulated air insufflation of the ear canal, is that the eardrum allows easy access to the trigeminal nerve.

Blowing Air Against the Eardrum Attacks Pain

It involves gently blowing air against the eardrum using a special device — similar to the one that is routinely used for ear examinations. The hand-held gadget, which has a small, cone-shaped nozzle that goes into the ear, blows out air for up to 20-minutes against the eardrum, which causes the eardrum to move.

In one of the new clinical trial, scientists from the Carrick Institute in Arizona will use the device on 25 migraine patients who will receive a single ten to 20-minute session during a migraine attack. Patients will grade the severity of their symptoms before and after they have had treatment.

The trial follows a 2013 report published in the journal Functional Neurology, Rehabilitation and Ergonomics.