I have been getting a number of questions recently about migraines and whether treatment with acupuncture is successful. In my experience here in the Boston area, I can say that as long as the patient is willing to fully engage in the treatment plan developed by their acupuncturist, I have seen very promising results for sufferers of migraines using acupuncture. The results are not just anecdotal either; there are research studies that back up acupuncture’s use for migraines such as one published in the British Medical Journal that found a decrease in the frequency of attacks among other things. Before we get into the role acupuncture plays in all this, I want to take a moment to talk about the staggering statistics of and the physiological aspects of migraines.
Headaches in general are a serious problem in the United States with as many as 78% of American suffering from recurrent headaches at some point in their life. They can be categorized as primary or secondary. Primary headaches such as migraines, cluster, tension or depression headaches nerivio are due to a dysfunction in the central nervous system. Secondary headaches are due to a problem outside the nervous system that then cause the symptoms of headache such as hypertension, renal or liver failure, flu or TMJ to name a few.
Migraine headaches, with or without aura, tend to strike females at a 3:1 ratio and over 20% of adult females suffer from them. Diagnosis is typically made based on the location, frequency, duration and characteristics of pain the patient presents with as well as a personal or familial history of headaches since 90% of migraine sufferers have a family history of them.
The basic science behind the migraine is that there is a rapid vasodilation, or opening, of the blood vessels in the head that leads to the throbbing pain typical with a migraine. There has also been some implication of serotonin in the process which explains the use of a class of prescription drugs called SSRIs, which includes Prozac, to treat the occurrence of the headaches. The typical drug regimen involves reliance on NSAIDS such as naproxen or ibuprofen but this often just reduces the pain without dealing with the cause and recurrence of the migraine.
Each person’s experience with their migraines is different. Some have intense visual aura that includes zigzag lines or tunnel vision prior to an attack while others are more sensitive to particular smells. Relief from the pain may be found in a darkened, quiet room or only following sleep. Attacks can occur during a workday after sitting at a computer for an extended time or even more troubling, just prior to the weekend when the stress of the workweek suddenly lifts. So what can you do to help decrease the frequency, duration and pain of a migraine? Here are 3 simple tips to help you!
1) Migraines are often triggered by environmental factors such as prepared meats containing nitrates, chocolate, alcohol, flashing lights, rapid air pressure or temperature changes to name a few. Many women find that their migraines are linked to their menstrual cycle and the hormone changes that occur during each stage of the cycle. By journaling and identifying the possible causes of the migraine, you can take control of your environment and avoid or at least be more aware of the possibility of a migraine in the future. Oriental medicine relies on information gathered during a migraine as well so the more detailed information you can share with your practitioner, such as the characteristic, location and duration of pain as well as what you saw, smelled or experienced during an attack, the easier it is for them to correctly diagnose the underlying problem.
2) When an attack occurs, you can try some simple acupressure techniques to decrease the pain. Often times pressure on the acupoints around the base of the skull like Gallbladder 20, Bladder 10 or Gallbladder 12 are helpful. Other points around the neck like Gallbladder 21 on the trapezius muscle can help too. Acupuncturists often use points around the hands like Large Intestine 4 or feet like Liver 1, 2 or 3 to decrease pain in the head. Whether you prefer strong or gentle pressure or a clockwise or counterclockwise motion is dependent on whether your pain decreases but I often use strong pressure and a counterclockwise motion to my stimulation of the point. Some patients may also consider applying either a hot or a cool towel to the back of the neck or forehead. You should be able to find information about the locations of these acupoints online.