Magnetic Fields for Migraines? Recent Studies Show Promise, New Study Underway

by Martha Lappin, PhD

Migraine headaches plague millions of people in the United States. Stewart et al. (1992) report that 18% of the women and 6% of the men in this country experience migraines every year. Furthermore, 4.5 million individuals have one or more disabling attacks a month.The large majority of migraine sufferers are in their prime productive years, and the social as well as the treatment costs are enormous.

Conventional, Pharmacological Treatments

Until recently, migraines were treated primarily with analgesics. However, using drugs to dull the pain of recurrent headaches is not a satisfactory long-term solution. Relying on pain killers month after month creates a high potential for dependence, habituation, and rebound headaches, even with over-the-counter analgesics. A second approach is to take medications to abort the attack (e.g., Imitrex, Zomig). Although these drugs are effective for some, the cost is high and the relief is often temporary - 40% to 78% of patients experience a recurrence of the headache within 24 hours (Peroutka, 1998).

The third treatment approach, preventing migraine attacks from occurring in the first place, has also proved unsatisfactory. Beta blockers, antidepressants, calcium channel blockers, and methysergide, and Depakote have all been used for this purpose, but evidence regarding their effectiveness is mixed, and all have side effects or serious contraindications.

There is a clear need for safe therapies that can prevent or reduce the frequency of migraines among chronic sufferers. Discouraged with conventional pharmacological treatments, many migraine sufferers have turned to complementary and alternative therapies. Biofeedback, meditation, visualization, transcranial electrical stimulation, feverfew, and acupuncture have all been reported to be effective for some migraine patients. Another option that is generating interest is stimulation with pulsed electromagnetic fields. Research in this area is described below.

Pulsed Electromagnetic Fields

Pulsed electromagnetic fields (EMFs) vary in terms of frequency (measured in Hz or oscillations per second) and strength (measured in gauss or tesla). Preliminary studies have examined the effects of both high strength, high frequency stimulation, and low strength, low frequency stimulation on migraines. Researchers at a Veterans Hospital near Seattle, looked at the former. In both a small open study and a small double-blind, placebo controlled study, subjects experienced a marked reduction in migraine frequency (e.g., from 3 or 4 per week to less than one per week) following treatments with high powered, high frequency pulsed EMFs (Sherman, Robson, & Marden, 1998).

Positive results have also been obtained in studies examining the effects of much weaker fields pulsed at extremely low frequencies. Young (1993), for example, tracked 54 migraine sufferers for three months after they received a device that emitted extremely low frequency (3 to 12 Hz) EMFs no stronger that the earth�s magnetic field. The average number of migraines dropped by half, from 1.2 to .6 per week, once subjects started wearing the pulsing EMF devices.

Several years later, researchers asked migraine patients who had received similar devices in clinics in Great Britain (n=264) to evaluate the effectiveness of the therapy (Lappin, 1995). Among those with the worst problems prior to treatment 60% said they improved by 5 or more points on a 10 point scale, and over one fourth of the respondents indicated that they were virtually migraine free after using the device. Only 15% failed to improve at all. Comparable results were reported for those with only moderately severe problems prior to treatment. A much smaller study (n=20) of patients treated in Canada showed a similar pattern of results: 25% found the treatment to be extremely effective and another 45% indicated that it was moderately to very effective (Lappin, 1999).

These studies are not conclusive because we cannot rule out placebo effects and response bias as explanations for the positive results. However, the findings certainly indicate that additional research is warranted. Although we do not know exactly how electromagnetic therapies work, basic researchers have shown that pulsed EMFs affect some of the neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the pathogenesis of migraines.

A New Study

A more scientifically rigorous study of weak, extremely low frequency EMFs is just getting underway in northern Virginia. Funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this research will be a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Migraine sufferers who are interested in participating can call the number listed below for additional information. Participants must be able to travel to a research site in northern Virginia five times over the course of the five month study, and suffer an average of two migraines a month. Subjects will not be required to discontinue any migraine medications they are currently taking. All subjects in the placebo group will be offered a chance to try the real treatment at the end of the formal study.


Lappin MS. Research on the Utility of the Enermed Device as a Treatment for Migraines. Research Report # 1, April 1995. Vancouver, BC: Energy Medicine Developments (North America) Inc.

Lappin MS. 1999 Enermed Patient Survey Results. Research Report # 4, November, 1999. Vancouver, BC: Energy Medicine Developments (North America) Inc.

Peroutka SJ. Beyond monotherapy: Rational polytherapy in migraine. Headache, 1998, 38:18-22.

Sherman RA, Robson L, Marden LA. Initial exploration of pulsing electromagnetic fields for treatment of migraine. Headache, 1998,

Stewart WF, Lipton RB, Celentano DD, et al. Prevalence of migraine headache in the United States: Relation to age, income, race and other sociodemographic factors. JAMA, 1992, 267:64-69.

Young S. Pilot study concerning the effects of extremely low frequency electromagnetic energy on migraine. Int J Alt Complement Med, October, 1993.

© Martha Lappin