Migraines, moderate or severe headaches that manifest as a sudden or gradual throbbing pain, aren’t just a nuisance – they can be genuinely debilitating for millions of people across the world. Treatments differ from person to person, and are varyingly effective.
Ketamine probably isn’t the first drug that comes to mind when you think of dealing with migraines, but this substance is a powerful, short-term anesthetic often used during operations on both humans and animals. According to new research, it looks like it might dull the pain of migraines too.
Studies looking into ketamine for use in this way have been conducted many times before, and several papers seem to lean towards there being some promise. This new data comes courtesy of a recent gathering of academics at the Anesthesiology Annual Meeting in Boston, who’ve been looking at the use of the illegal recreational drug on 61 male migraine sufferers in the US.
These patients have been afflicted by the neural pain often enough, or intensely enough, over the past three years that they’ve all had to be admitted to hospitals. No other treatment proved effective, and until now, they were doomed to live a migraine-riddled life.
A team, led by Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, gave them small doses of the tranquilizer for up to a week, finding that it effectively treated three out of four of them. Specifically, the pain they felt – assessed using a linear 0-10 scale – was reduced from 7.5 to 3.4 when the treatment was at its most effective, something which appeared to occur on the fourth day of the trial.
Ketamine in higher doses, or in lower doses in sensitive individuals, can have some negative side effects. It can cause hallucinations, confusion, panic attacks, temporary memory loss, bladder problems, and even physical incapacitation due to mental instability.
However, in controlled, moderate doses, it is clearly an effective pain relief – and in the trial, patients only experienced brief hallucinations and very vivid dreams, a price arguably worth paying to stop migraines.
It must be noted that as this study was a retrospective review – meaning they looked at pre-existing trial data, rather than conducting it themselves – it cannot be said that ketamine definitively acts in a way to block pain receptors involved in migraines. More trials are needed to confirm that there’s a causal effect at play here.
The study doesn’t help to explain what causes migraines in the first place. Although factors like stress, dehydration, and even genes are strongly suspected of playing a role, there is much about them that is currently unexplained.