The Big Squeeze
Like a hammer pounding the skull or a vise clamped to the cranium,
a migraine headache can be among the most excruciating and debilitating pains
a person can experience. If you suffer from this malady, here are some
ways to minimize your misery.
Cyndy Roseman-Puccio didn’t know what a migraine was until she turned 50. Preparing for a cross-country trip to the east coast from her home in Half Moon Bay, California, Roseman-Puccio awoke one morning with a disquieting headache. Thinking it would quickly subside, she and her husband headed to a local restaurant for breakfast, where Roseman-Puccio spent the entire meal throwing up in the restroom. “It was horrible and I was so nauseous,” she recalls. “It felt like a vise was clamped to the sides of my head and someone was tightening it.” From that point on, migraines became a routine part of her life.
Roseman-Puccio later learned that her migraines were brought on by menopause and foods that had abruptly become triggers for the intense head pain. “All of a sudden, chocolate and red wine became my worst enemies,” she says before admitting she still indulges in the occasional fudgey treat. “Hey, I’m not going to stop living because of migraines.”
For more than 29.5 million Americans—mostly women—migraine headaches range from painful to downright debilitating. Talk to anyone who suffers from migraines and they describe dealing with the pounding in their heads with words like “excruciating,” “incapacitating” and “unbearable.” Many spend long days in bed and are forced to miss work; the World Health Organization cites migraines as among the most debilitating of ills, costing employers nearly $13 billion a year in lost productivity and another $1 billion in medical care. Many migraine sufferers are also forced to forgo activities and lose time with family and friends. Others are trapped into devouring a never-ending succession of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which may mask the pain but never get to the root of the cause.
If you’ve never experienced a migraine, consider yourself very lucky. The word “migraine” comes from the Greek hemikranion, or pain affecting one side of the head. That definition is mild compared to the reality. Imagine a fierce throbbing in your head that may last up to 72 hours, accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Any sort of exertion—even climbing stairs—aggravates the pain. Additional symptoms can include blurred vision, irritability, depression, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and the inability to concentrate. Some people will complain that their hair “hurts” and the pain may become so intense that even wearing glasses or jewelry becomes unbearable.
Migraines can afflict anyone at any age. But women, due to fluctuations in estrogen levels, are three times more likely to suffer from them than men. Adding insult to malady, the National Migraine Association reports that nearly 60% of women with migraines have never been properly diagnosed.
Where do migraines come from? Current theory suggests that they are triggered from within the brain itself, the pain arising from an interaction between the trigeminal nerve, the one that controls sensation in the face, and blood vessels in the coverings of the brain. While there is currently no definitive test to confirm the diagnosis of migraine, establishing a record of symptoms, other headache characteristics and family history helps to determine if the headaches are, indeed, migraines.
Every sufferer, particularly those uninterested in or unresponsive to powerful prescription medications, poses the same question: Is there a way to head off migraines? Since the symptoms occur as a result of changes in the diameter of blood vessels in the brain, natural remedies are geared toward avoiding common triggers, including certain foods, fragrances and nicotine. Additional migraine catalysts—such as excessive stress, insomnia, nutritional deficiencies and misalignments of the spine and neck—can be effectively treated through alternative techniques. One of the most common reasons people seek remedies such as chiropractic, acupuncture and supplemental therapies is to escape the agony of chronic head pain. These treatments are known to significantly reduce the frequency, duration and severity of migraine symptoms.
When a patient who is plagued by migraines consults with Michael Vorozilchak, DC, a chiropractor in Montour Falls, New York, he offers them a headache diary, a booklet where patients maintain a record of events (noting foods, moods and activities) and actions preceding each migraine. Later, when the diary is reviewed, common triggers are often revealed.
“There are so many different variables that can lead to a migraine that to think you can take a pill to address the problem makes no sense,” says Vorozilchak. “As with any ailment, the key to correcting migraines is correcting the underlying cause.” In addition to environmental triggers, a common cause may be postural stresses, so every patient receives X-rays and a thorough exam, in addition to a detailed investigation into triggers.
Chiropractic treatment, says Vorozilchak, has been healing all kinds of headaches for years, and he believes that chiropractic manipulation should be considered a logical starting point for anyone looking to escape the pain of migraines. “The basis of all chiropractic intervention is to remove the cause,” he says. “Evidence suggests that postural stress and loss of the natural curve in the neck are among the strongest correlates to all headaches, including migraines.”
Some studies confirm that chiropractic care can manage migraine ills. The Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics reported that a study of 177 volunteers experiencing migraines for an average of 18 years were relieved of both migraine and neck pain. And, in just 13 weeks, chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy (CSMT) on migraine sufferers led to a marked improvement in symptoms, according to the Australasia Chiro and Osteo Journal. Nine additional studies concluded that spinal manipulation is comparable to medications in preventing both migraine and tension headaches.
A simple approach to healing migraine misery may come from essential minerals, vitamins and herbs readily found on health food store shelves. Liz Spree, Wellness Department Assistant at GreenStar Cooperative Market in Ithaca, New York, has studied herbs at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine, and she finds that herbal tinctures such as feverfew, skullcap, valerian, hops and passionflower taken at the first sign of a migraine can work wonders: “I feel that the body utilizes herbal tinctures more quickly and effectively.”
Spree says that the majority of GreenStar’s customers with migraines are older women and she understands their reticence at taking prescription drugs. “Many have become disenchanted with conventional medicine because of the adverse side effects,” she says. “Who can blame them? What’s the point of taking a pill that makes your headache go away but makes you dizzy and nauseous?”
Magnesium, vital to vigorous vascular health, may be just as effective as prescription drugs at treating migraines—minus the side effects. Since evidence suggests that up to 50% of migraine sufferers have lowered levels of ionized magnesium, logic dictates that this essential mineral should ward off migraines. In myriad studies, an infusion of magnesium results in a rapid and sustained relief of symptoms, reports Clinical Neuroscience. Plagued by severe migraine headaches for years until encountering magnesium, Jay S. Cohen, MD, author of The Magnesium Solution for Migraine Headaches (Square One), says the key is finding a magnesium supplement that agrees with your stomach. If yours is sensitive, go with liquid magnesium with added amino acids that can be better absorbed into the body.
Coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant made by the body and used by cells to make energy, can also help reduce the frequency of attacks. CoQ10 may boost brain cell energy, thus reducing the incidence of migraines. Further studies show that vitamin B2 and herbs like feverfew and butterbur may also prevent migraines or reduce their severity. Additional supplements, including 5-HTP, SAMe and glucosamine, may also help to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches and research is ongoing into their effectiveness.
Many folks find acupuncture something of a mystery, yet its premise is actually quite simple: Ailments such as migraines are caused by an imbalance in the body’s flow of energy. By stimulating acupuncture points with very thin, disposable needles, the body prompts the nervous system to release endorphins and other natural chemicals that relieve pain. When it comes to migraines, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) maintains that acupuncture can unblock these meridians to relieve symptoms.
“In the treatment of migraine, not only can acupuncture substantially reduce the acute attack, but it can also improve overall health and well-being, including relief of such complaints as frustration, anxiety, fatigue, irritability and insomnia,” says Dr. Lin Zhou, doctor of TCM, licensed acupuncturist and women’s health specialist at Acupuncture and Alternative Medicine of Dallas in Richardson, Texas. “Acupuncture needles stimulate the autonomic nervous system to increase the production of beta-endorphin and natural steroids.”
Acupuncture has been studied as a treatment for migraines for over 20 years, and the National Institutes of Health currently recommends it as a headache treatment. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, those receiving traditional acupuncture saw their headache rates drop by almost half. Among her migraine patients, most of them women, Zhou has witnessed a dramatic decrease or elimination in both migraine frequency and use of medication. In addition to targeting migraine pain, her goal is to treat the person as a whole, encompassing lifestyle and dietary changes: “In my practice, most migraine sufferers are women. Stress, tension, lack of sleep, physical and emotional exhaustion, red wine, caffeine and hormonal imbalance are the most common triggers of migraines.”
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all panacea that conquers migraines. But it is likely that treatments such as dietary supplements, acupuncture and chiropractic can help take the edge off of the ache. The key is to keep trying until you find the right combination that works for you. Don’t let migraine pain rule your life.