The latest in headaches: Brain freeze and Botox


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If there were a magic pill to cure us of all our headaches from today on forward, wouldn’t we all pop it as soon as we could get our hands on it? Well if you’re one of the estimated 28 million Americans who suffer from migraines, you would.

Unfortunately that miracle cure doesn’t exist — at least not yet — but a number of recent studies have been looking at the headache, particularly the migraine, in the hopes of better understanding the malady and finding effective treatments.

Here are two of them.

The brain freeze-migraine connection

You know that pure joy you feel as you’re slurping down an ice-cold ice cream cone on the hottest of summer days? And you know that indescribable pain you feel in your head as the freezing, creamy dessert dribbles down your chin? The guilty party: Brain freeze.

And while the sensation is one we’d like never to meet again, brain freeze may be the key in finding the cause of migraines and relief from them.

Previous studies have found that people who suffer from migraines are more likely to experience brain freeze than others, leaving researchers wondering if brain freeze shares a common mechanism with other types of headaches, such as those connected to blast-related combat injuries in soldiers.

The study, “Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During Brain Freeze,” has found a possible link between brain freeze and other headache types: local changes in brain blood flow.

Researchers used brain freeze as a proxy for other kinds of headaches. Researchers induced the sensation in 13 healthy adults, first by having them sip ice water with the straw pressed against their upper palate and then while sipping the same amount of water at room temperature. The volunteers were told to raise their hand when brain freeze had commenced and raise it again once the pain had subsided. The researchers then studied blood flow in the volunteers’ brains and found that the sudden headache seemed to be triggered by an abrupt increase in blood flow in the anterior cerebral artery and disappeared when this artery constricts.

This dilation, then quick constriction, may be a type of self-defense for the brain. “The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time,” said Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School and the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System. “It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.” But since the skull is a closed structure, Serrador added, the sudden influx of blood could raise pressure and lead to pain. The following vasoconstriction may be a way to bring the pressure down before it reaches dangerous levels.

The findings could potentially lead to new treatments for a variety of headaches, according to the researchers.

Serrador explained that similar changes in blood flow could potentially be the cause of migraines, posttraumatic headaches and other types of headache. More studies are needed to confirm this hypothesis, but if the theory pans out, discovering ways to control blood flow could offer sufferers some relief. This may include drugs that block sudden vasodilation or target channels involved in the vasodilation of headaches.

Botox: Facial freezer and headache reliever?

Want to look years younger and rid yourself of headaches? If you’re thinking Botox can give you a 2-for-1, you may want to rethink that stance. While Botulinum toxin A (Botox) injections have been proven to zap the wrinkles right off your face, their effect on headaches is a bit more dubious.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Botox is a prescription medicine that is injected into muscles and used to prevent headaches in adults with chronic migraine who have 15 or more days each month with headache lasting four or more hours each day.”

And a recent study, “Botulinum Toxin A for Prophylactic Treatment of Migraine and Tension Headaches in Adults,” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, set out to test that assertion. The finding: Botox is only moderately effective.

Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee categorized headaches were categorized as follows: episodic (<15 headaches per month) or chronic (≥15 headaches per month) migraine and episodic or chronic daily or tension headaches. They then compared the effects of Botox with placebo or other interventions.

The study found that Botox was associated with two fewer headaches per month among patients with chronic daily headaches and among patients with chronic migraine headaches. However, there was no significant association between the use of Botox and reduction in the number of episodic migraine or chronic tension-type headaches. In addition, the researchers found that Botox was no more effective than some prescribed medications used for migraine treatment.

Tell us: If Botox were effective in easing headaches, would you try it?