Could Botox Cure Your Headaches?
For many, researchers say, the surprising answer is "yes."
Sometime in the fall of 2010, the FDA is expected to officially approve Botox as a treatment for headaches. This will be the first time many people hear of this treatment option -- which takes an unusual approach to headache pain, to say the least. But the announcement will officially confirm what many headache sufferers have already discovered on their own: Botox injections do, in fact, treat and prevent migraines.
Botox as a treatment for headache was discovered entirely by accident. Migraine sufferers receiving Botox injections to reduce wrinkles noticed that it seemed to ease their headaches -- or even prevent them entirely. Word spread and researchers undertook studies, but headache sufferers didn't wait. They began quietly seeking Botox treatment despite the lack of official approval. (Botox is approved for wrinkles, so extending the treatment to headaches is considered an "off-label" use.) While the first studies focused on migraines, researchers soon began to study the effect of Botox on all types of headaches.
How does it work?
Doctors aren't certain just how it works, which is one of the reasons the treatment has been considered experimental for so long. Botox is a protein that's derived from the bacteria that causes botulism, a severe form of food poisoning. Technically a toxin, it paralyzes muscles when injected into muscle tissue -- hence the legions of celebrities with frozen foreheads.
In the last ten years, Botox has been approved to treat numerous conditions, including:
Vocal cord spasms
Excessive armpit sweating
Botox works for these conditions by paralyzing the muscles or glands causing the problem -- the eyelid muscle or the sweat gland or the facial muscle, for example. When it comes to headaches, the doctor or other practitioner typically injects Botox into the forehead, neck, and shoulders in spots where patients are experiencing pain or tension. The Botox paralyzes the muscles, preventing tension and decreasing strain on the central nervous system.
But many doctors are now convinced that Botox does more than freeze muscles; it also seems to block pain receptors in nerve cells. The theory is that it works by blocking overactive nerve impulses that trigger glandular activity contributing to headaches and by blocking the nerve impulses that transmit pain.