It’s often associated with costly cosmetic procedures, but onabotulinum toxin A, or Botox, is actually an important medical treatment. It is very useful for relieving or treating several conditions, including neck pain called cervical dystonia, eye spasms, crossed eyes, chronic migraines and even underarm sweating.
The botulinum toxin is, as the name suggests, the chemical that causes botulism, a form of food poisoning. When it’s in food, it causes paralysis, but the same paralyzing effect can be harnessed to unstiffen limbs and unclench muscles. It also blocks certain bodily secretions, meaning people with excessive underarm perspiration can use it to keep that under control. Overactive bladder is another problem that botulism toxin can treat.
The use of Botox as a treatment for migraines does follow directly from its cosmetic use—patients getting Botox treatments for wrinkles noticed that their chronic migraines briefly stopped after the injection was given. Scientists aren’t sure how botulism toxin treats migraines, but one possibility is a combination of blocking the nerves activated by the pain, the way many over-the-counter painkillers work, and relaxing the muscles in the face. The injections are helpful in both treating patients who suffer migraines more than half of each month, and in preventing those frequent headaches from happening for as long as three months after each dose.
People who suffer a condition called cervical dystonia are given botulism toxin to keep that under control. There is no permanent cure for cervical dystonia, a painful and uncontrollable neck muscle twitch, which causes the patient’s head to continually jerk to one side. Injected directly into the neck, the medication relaxes the muscle, stopping the twitching for three to four months
The muscle relaxing properties of the substance are also useful in helping restore a full range of motion to stroke patients. Too often, these patients are unaware of the usefulness of the injection for their conditions—it’s a new application, and an “off-label,” or unofficial, one, so many doctors are unaware of it—and so are not able to get the benefits it provides. Botulism toxin is targeted, unlike standard treatments for post-stroke paralysis, which affect the whole body and can cause drowsiness.