An update on closing PFO (a heart defect) to treat migraines

An opening between the left and the right side of the heart, called patent foramen ovale (PFO), is found in 25% of the general population. It has been found to be more common in people who suffer from migraines. A large PFOs can cause shortness of breath, heart failure, and strokes and they are usually closed surgically. Several companies developed a device to close this opening without open heart surgery, but rather by inserting an umbrella-like device through a vein in the groin.

The manufacturers of these devices have conducted clinical trials in the hope of preventing migraines by closing the PFO. The results so far have been mixed with some studies showing improvement in migraines and some showing no benefit. A study just presented at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society by Dr. Andrew Charles of UCLA and his colleagues reported on one such trial. This study was blinded, with 107 patients having a sham procedure (the catheter was inserted into the groin vein, but the PFO was not closed) and 123 having their PFO closed. Overall, there was a significant reduction in headache days in the closure group (-3.4 days) compared with the sham group (-2.0 days), however there was no difference in the primary efficacy endpoint of the number of patients with 50% or more reduction in migraine attacks.

A subset of patients did particularly well compared to the sham group – patients who had migraine aura with the majority of their migraine attacks. A significant reduction in migraine days was present in half of patients with aura compared with a quarter in the control group. About 11% (8 out of 74 patients) of those who had migraine with aura had complete elimination of migraine attacks, while this happened to only 1.5% (1 out of 68 patients) in the sham group with auras.

This study suggests that patients who have auras with the majority of their migraine attacks and whose migraines are difficult to control should undergo an echocardiogram to test for the possible presence of a PFO. If PFO is present, it may be reasonable to consider seeing an interventional cardiologist to close the PFO. This is a relatively safe procedure if done by an experienced doctor and that is a very important if. Pick a doctor who has done a hundred or more of these procedures.

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