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My Head Hurts. Are Daily Headaches Normal?

We all know someone who is affected by migraines, or ‘severe headaches’. In fact, it is estimated to be the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world. It can be extremely debilitating with strong symptoms including nausea, vomiting, sharp or throbbing pain, and visual disturbances. It can be difficult to treat effectively and as a result those afflicted by migraines typically have their lives significantly impacted — employment, family relationships and general well-being. There are many different treatments for migraines. Acupuncture has been found to be an effective and natural treatment for migraine headaches.

What is a Migraine headache? The World Health Organization describes it (1):

• A primary headache disorder. Other Headache disorders include: Tension Type Headache (TTH), Cluster Headache (CH), and Medication Overuse Headache (MOH).

• Migraine most often begins at puberty and most affects those aged between 35 and 45 years.

• It is more common in women, usually by a factor of about 2:1, because of hormonal influences.

• It is caused by the activation of a mechanism deep in the brain that leads to release of pain-producing inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head.

• Migraine is recurrent, often life-long, and characterized by recurring attacks.

Attacks typically include:

- headache, which is: of moderate or severe intensity one-sided pulsating in quality aggravated by routine physical activity with duration of hours to 2-3 days

- nausea (the most characteristic associated feature);

- attack frequency is anywhere between once a year and once a week;

- and in children, attacks tend to be of shorter duration and abdominal symptoms more prominent.

Who does it affect? According to the Migraine Research Foundation (2):

• Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world.

• Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. households includes someone with migraine.

• Amazingly, 12% of the world population – including children – suffers from migraine.

• In the U.S. 18% of women, 6% of men, and 10% of children experience migraines.

• Migraine is most common between the ages of 25 and 55.

How is it treated in conventional medicine?  The treatment depends on the type of headache, its severity and chronicity (chronic vs. acute). However, there are a number of treatment options your medical provider may prescribe. Generally, in conventional medicine, the treatment is medication to stop a migraine or to prevent recurrence (3). The goal is to reduce the incidence, lessen the severity or make headaches shorter in duration.  The categories of medication that may be prescribed includes*:

• Anti-seizure drugs. These meds may work by calming nerve cells in the brain.

• Beta-blockers. The mechanism in which they help headaches is unknown, however these meds increase blood flow.

• Antidepressants. These medications affect the level of the brain chemical serotonin, which may be linked to migraines. 

• Triptans. These meds treat migraines associated with a woman’s menstrual cycle.

• Botox. Used for more chronic migraine sufferers, they believe Botox may inhibit the brain from giving off chemicals that the body uses to send pain signals. *This is not intended to be a complete list. Consult your Physician for additional information about treatment options.

Your physician will likely work to gradually increase/adjust dosage and use of these different medications based on treatment success. Given these treatment paths are long term, and may have other unwanted symptoms or side effects (e.g. digestive upset, increased risk of stroke or heart attack, fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, headache, etc.), it is recommended to work with a physician who specializes in the treatment of migraine headaches.

How effective is Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in treating headaches? The approach of Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is to look for the root cause of disease. In simple terms, this is the combination of your genetic predispositions, health history and your lifestyle habits. This approach also incorporates nutrition, stress management and lifestyle behaviors (i.e. sleep hygiene, exercise habits, etc.) into a long term treatment plan to help your body return to balance. In so doing, one may reduce or eliminate the occurrence of migraines, and/or reduce or eliminate the need for medication. We work in concert with your physician to find a safe, effective treatment plan for your individual health and well-being.

What is the research on Acupuncture and Migraines? Recent research by Zhang et al. looks into the mechanisms of Acupuncture in treating headaches (See Image 1). This diagram identifies how acupuncture points locally (i.e. on the head and face), and distally (i.e. on the hands and legs), work with the nervous system and midbrain, to trigger higher centers of the brain to reduce pain. Acupuncture achieves this through mechanisms which are not entirely understood. It has been demonstrated to activate a number of the body’s own opioids, as well as improving the brain’s sensitivity to these opioids (4). In addition, a number of other biochemicals involved in pain reduction — including ATP and adenosine, GABA and substance P — have been found to be released or regulated by acupuncture stimulation (5).

In a German study for chronic pain, 454,920 patients were treated with acupuncture for headache, low back pain, and/or osteoarthritis in an open pragmatic trial (6). Effectiveness was rated as “marked” or “moderate” in 76% of cases by the 8,727 treating physicians. And, a meta-analysis study (referred to in an earlier blog), of 17,922 patients from randomized trials, concluded that “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain” (7).

With this recent research, and its ability to work in a complimentary fashion with western biomedicine, it is no wonder acupuncture is becoming a common recommendation among physician’s in the treatment of migraine pain.

If you, or someone close to you, is experiencing regular headaches please put them in touch. I would love the opportunity to discuss how acupuncture could be an effective approach for their health challenges.

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