If only it was "just a headache"
Serenity Aberdour, ND
Migraine sufferers react to a variety of environmental triggers, including smells and weather. Acupuncture, herbs and supplements may offer natural pain relief.
They are generally described as severe headaches, although if you have ever had one, you know that calling a migraine a “headache” does not quite cover it. A migraine is often a whole body experience that can include a host of other symptoms.
What does a migraine look like?
In Australia, migraines affect about 6 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women. They can vary in frequency from several a year to several a month. The pain is typically one sided, throbbing and worsened by activities such as walking, bending or climbing stairs.
Migraines can last between four hours and three days. Along with the pain, there are usually other symptoms such as nausea; vomiting; and/or extreme sensitivity to light, sound or smell. It is not unusual for someone suffering from a migraine to be curled up alone in a dark, quiet room just waiting and wishing for it to be over.
Auras—not the pretty coloured kind
In some cases, unusual neurological symptoms can start well before the pain of a migraine comes on. Known as an aura, this can include changes in vision, paleness, numbness or tingling, fatigue, stiff neck, trouble with concentration or similar symptoms which start up to two days before a migraine.
Research has found that the blood flow to certain parts of the brain is decreased just before or during an aura, and this is likely the cause of the unusual symptoms.
What causes migraines?
The short answer to this question is: we don’t know for sure. The leading theory at this time is that certain people have a genetic predisposition to suffering from migraines and that this genetic vulnerability causes them to react to certain triggers in their environment, resulting in a migraine.
For those who are vulnerable, a variety of different environmental factors, foods and/or stressors can trigger a migraine. These triggers are not the same for every migraine sufferer, and in fact they can vary quite a bit from person to person. Here are some of the more common triggers.
For women, hormone changes such as drops in oestrogen can trigger a migraine. As a result, female migraine sufferers may experience attacks related to their menstrual cycles, pregnancy, menopause or birth control pills.
Many migraine sufferers count a food or two among their triggers. Some of the most common are red wine and aged cheeses, but chocolate, food additives, caffeine or fermented foods, along with a variety of other foods can be culprits. On the other hand, being overly hungry can also be a trigger, so it is important in such cases that meals be regular in order to avoid triggering an attack.
Whether it’s too much or too little, any significant changes in the usual sleeping pattern can cause misery for some migraine sufferers.
Both physical or emotional stress—if it’s too much—can be a problem. A tough week at the office, a falling-out with a friend, an argument with a spouse—these or other stressors may end in a migraine.
Major changes in temperature or climate, whether it is before a storm, during a heat wave or at the change of season, can cause suffering for migraine sufferers.
Perfumes, cleaning products, air fresheners, smoke—these and other pungent odours are often triggers for migraine.
Migraines can cause a lot of disruption in the lives of those who suffer from them. Fortunately, a number of treatment options are available that may help, including several natural interventions.
Natural approaches to migraine prevention
This century’s old therapy continues to prove its value in the treatment of many conditions. For migraines, acupuncture can be particularly helpful in prevention by reducing the frequency of attacks.
A review of 22 trials looking at the impact of acupuncture on migraine prevention concluded that it has consistently been shown to be an effective treatment and that, overall, acupuncture had better outcomes and fewer side effects than commonly used prescription drugs. Three to four months of regular acupuncture treatments can result in fewer migraines, and benefits have been found to last even nine months after treatments were stopped.
A qualified massage therapist can be another important part of the prevention team for migraine sufferers, particularly when stress is a trigger. Five weeks of weekly massage has been shown to improve sleep, reduce frequency of migraines and decrease heart rate and levels of salivary cortisol (a measure of stress levels). If stress is one of your migraine triggers, get to know your local therapist; the benefits will go beyond your migraines!
More than 75 per cent of migraine episodes occur during sleep. And many who suffer from migraines will tell you that poor sleep—too much or too little sleep—can trigger an attack. For this reason, it is important to have as regular a sleep schedule as possible.
Try to get to sleep around the same time and for an adequate amount of time each night. If you have trouble sleeping, seek the assistance of health care professionals who can help to determine why you don’t sleep well and point you towards treatments to ease your sleep troubles.
Nutritional and herbal medicines
While Headache Australia proposes a number of medications that can be taken daily to reduce the incidence of severe headaches, only two—feverfew and riboflavin (200 mg, twice daily)— are non-prescription drugs. On the other hand, in 2012 the Canadian Headache Society released new guidelines for the prevention of migraines in which several of the strongest drug therapy recommendations were natural products—specifically, magnesium, CoQ10 and riboflavin.
This demonstrates that the evidence for some natural interventions is strong enough to include in the guidelines used by medical doctors. Here is a quick summary of the recommendations for these products:
Not all of these products should necessarily be taken by all patients, or at the same time; always consult with your health care provider for the recommendations that are most appropriate for you.