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Mastering Migraines: 10 Alternatives to Medication
My migraines announce their imminent arrivals with great fanfare. After 30 years I know the drill: silver stars swirl before my eyes, and as I watch the psychedelic light show—the classic pre-migraine aura — I realize with growing dread that misery is on its way. A few hours later, a vague tightness in my right temple gives way to a nauseating, one-sided pounding.
If left untreated, the pain is so intense in its jackhammer-like regularity that the faintest light appears blinding, small sounds are intensified and smells are unbearable. The only relief is to sleep, fitfully, with an ice pack perched precariously on my head while my husband hovers, empathetic but powerless to help. As the hours wear on, I actually welcome the inevitable vomiting as a blessed sign that the end of the migraine is near.
For years I sought relief in medication — and still take it when the migraine is full-blown. However, a few years ago, my chiropractor suggested acupuncture as a migraine preventive. Intrigued, I began treating my migraines through alternative and complementary medicine.
Can gentle, holistic healing methods really control a disease that affects almost 30 million Americans and costs their employers more than 20 billion dollars annually in lost worker productivity? These 10 holistic remedies may provide relief either alone or in conjunction with traditional medicine. Consult a qualified naturopathic, alternative or complementary healthcare practitioner before embarking on a course of treatment.
According to the Association for Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback, “Numerous controlled, clinical, comparative, and long term follow-up studies [including a German study in 2007] have proven beyond any doubt that biofeedback can reduce and cure tension and migraine headaches among adults and children.”
Biofeedback utilizes sensors placed on the body that teach a patient to monitor bodily functions like muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. As the patient watches the feedback from the sensors on a monitor, she learns how to control her body’s response — techniques she can implement later in the early stages of a migraine to promote muscle relaxation and lower blood pressure, both of which contribute to relieving migraine pain. Biofeedback is a favorite at the nationally recognized Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago; to locate a provider in your area, visit the AAPB website. Or consider a personal biofeedback device such as the Stress Eraser.
The premise of acupuncture, based on 2,500 years of Chinese medical tradition, holds that energy, or chi, circulates along specific meridian points on the body; hair-thin needles are inserted along meridian lines to balance and restore energy. Some research indicates that acupuncture may affect the central nervous system, increase circulation and increase endorphins — all of which can act as a balm for migraine sufferers.
The largest study looking at the effectiveness of acupuncture for migraine prevention was published in the March 2006 edition of The Lancet Neurology. In this study, researchers found that “47 percent of participants in the traditional acupuncture group… experienced a reduction of migraine days by 50 percent or more.”
Individual therapists determine the specific acupuncture points for a specific patient, but a typical puncture site for migraines is the area between the thumb and forefinger, and the insides of the ankles. Though acupuncture points are generally painless, I have noticed that a looming migraine causes increased tenderness in these areas.
This ancient Ayurvedic technique calms the nervous system to prevent and relieve migraines. The treatment, which takes place with the client face-up on a massage table, consists of a continuous stream of warm sesame oil poured over the forehead and down the scalp, and induces a state of deep relaxation.
A number of Ayurvedic practitioners offer this technique; some more traditional spas have also begun including Shirodhara on their menus. Call your local day spa or check SpaFinder.com for a practitioner near you.
One of the main ingredients in this herb, petasin, is said to reduce inflammation and may thereby prevent the swelling that leads to migraines. A 2005 German study reported that 77 percent of patients reported a reduction in migraine frequency, and a whopping 91 percent felt substantially or at least slightly improved, while taking butterbur during the four-month trial. Check with your practitioner for the proper dosage, but don’t use butterbur if you’re pregnant or nursing.
5. Anti-Headache Diet
According to the National Headache Foundation (NHF), near 20 percent of migraineurs can consistently identify a food trigger. MSG, found in fast foods and snack foods, is often cited as a culprit in migraine attacks. Chocolate, red wine and aged cheese are other common triggers. “These foods may cause chemical changes in the brain that activate the migraine attack process. That process involves excitability of nerves and reaction of the blood vessels,” says an NHF physician. To maintain preventive migraine health, the NHF stresses the importance of eating healthy meals on a regular schedule and not skipping meals. Drink plenty of water, too, because dehydration may also cause symptoms to worsen.
Several studies, including one reported in a 2007 issue of the journal Nature Clinical Practice Neurology, show that meditation and yoga can create a physiological reaction in the body that is the exact opposite of stress. Clinical studies have shown mindfulness meditation can be an effective treatment for chronic pain. Meditating also slows breathing rate, blood pressure and heart rate, which can help relieve migraine pain.
Feverfew was considered a remedy for inflammation in ancient Greek medical literature. In a 2008 issue of HerbalGram, the journal of the American Botanical Council, it was reported that the use of feverfew leads to a “significant reduction in frequency and severity of attacks as well as decrease of nausea and vomiting.” Researchers think feverfew helps because it blocks serotonin, which causes abnormal blood vessel dilation during a migraine attack. As with butterbur, avoid feverfew if you’re pregnant or nursing.
Magnesium is the fourth-most abundant mineral element in the human body, and new research is leading doctors to speculate that magnesium deficiency, present in many migraine sufferers, might be to blame for the pain. In 2008, the journal Magnesium Research reported on a study with migraine patients without aura; researchers discovered that migraineurs on magnesium experienced fewer attacks and the pain was less severe. There was also an increase in blood flow to certain parts of the brain in these patients; the magnesium somehow causes changes in the brain that benefit migraine sufferers, such as constriction of blood vessels in the brain and scalp. The Daily Reference Intake for magnesium, set by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, is between 310-420 milligrams, depending on age and gender. Find yours in foods like leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts and halibut. â€¨
Coenzyme Q10 has been touted as an extremely effective migraine aid. A 2005 article in the journal American Family Physician reported that during a trial of this supplement, 61.3 percent of the patients achieved at least a 50 percent reduction in frequency of migraine attacks by the end of the four months, with a 150mg dosage of CoQ10. Like the other supplements mentioned, CoQ10 seems to work best as a preventive remedy rather than a migraine abortive. â€¨â€¨
10. Body Stress Release
BSR was developed in South Africa in the 1980s, but is now practiced in at least 12 countries. Working with the body’s natural predisposition to be stress-free, BSR assesses the whole body for stored tension. Locked-in body stress can result in pain, because tense muscles put pressure on the nerves; once the stress points are identified, the tension is released using light but definite pressure. The Body Stress Release Association website has more information on the method, and lists providers in several countries (though only a few in the United States).
Also of note is the work of John Sarno, M.D., a professor at the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Medical Center, raised skeptical eyebrows in the 1990s with the publication of his book, The Mindbody Prescription. The book mainly dealt with the psychological underpinnings that caused back pain, but it featured a fascinating section on migraines in which Sarno discussed how he cured himself of migraines by examining his own patterns of repressed rage. Louise Hay, author of the perennially popular You Can Heal Your Life, attributes migraine pain to the thought pattern of perfectionism. As a migraine treatment, it is certainly worthwhile to examine psychological or spiritual factors that may be contributing to your pain.
Perhaps one of the worst aspects of migraines is the pervasive feeling of hopelessness that often accompanies the disease, particularly when one has suffered for decades and taken scores of medications, often to no avail. The prospect of staying on these medications permanently — many of which have severe side effects — is enough to cause a feeling of discouragement and even depression. Holistic remedies not only provide real prevention and relief, but also engender a sense of hope, comfort and freedom from migraine pain.
Mastering Migraines courtesy of Whole Life Times magazine.