What are Migraines?
Migraines are a type of headache that cause an intense throbbing or pulsing in one area of the head, and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can cause pain from hours to days and be preceded or accompanied by sensory warning symptoms (aura), such as flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in your arm or leg.
Migraines may progress through four stages: prodrome, aura, headache and postdrome; though a person may not experience all the stages. The prodrome stage is usually one to two days prior to a migraine attack when a person may experience constipation, depression, food cravings, irritability, hyperactivity, neck stiffness, or uncontrollable yawning.
The aura stage may occur before or during a migraine attack and typically last 20-60 minutes. An aura may include visual disturbances like flashing light, zigzag flashes, or blind spots; sensory disturbances like pins and needles in the arm or leg; or motor and speech disturbances.
The headache stage can last anywhere from four to 72 hours, and be as frequent as several times a month or far less often. The headache pain has a pulsing or throbbing feeling, and can be accompanied by nausea or vomiting, extreme sensitivity to light, sounds and smells, lightheadedness, and blurred vision.
The final postdrome stage occurs after and attack. The person may feel tired or drained, or just the opposite – mildly euphoric.
Migraines can usually be diagnosed by a person’s medical history and symptoms. If the migraines are severe, unusual, or complex, however, a doctor may also recommend tests to rule out any other serious medical condition. These tests include blood tests, a CT scan of the brain (computerized tomography, like an x-ray), an MRI of the brain (magnetic resonance imaging), or a spinal tap (lumbar puncture).
Causes of Migraines
Although migraines are not completely understood, there are some factors that seem to play a role in causing their onset. Genetics, environmental triggers, and imbalances in brain chemicals can influence migraines. Some of these causes include: fluctuations in estrogen levels in women and hormonal medications; serotonin levels in the brain; certain foods and food additives or lack of food; alcohol and caffeine; stress or anxiety; sensory stimuli affecting vision, hearing, or smell; irregular sleep patterns or lack of sleep; weather or barometric changes; and certain medications.
Scientists also are beginning to understand migraines as part of a healing process. The theory explains why migraines often occur at the onset of relaxation after prolonged periods of stress. When the body is under stress, blood vessels constrict and minimize circulation (vasoconstriction), including circulation to the brain. When vasoconstriction becomes excessive, the body reacts to the blood deprivation by dilating the affected arteries to resume adequate circulation. This “rebound dilation” produces a state of over-dilation in affected blood vessels, and that expansion is what causes the intense throbbing pain characteristic of migraines. Many migraine sufferers often experience very intense headaches at the end of a stressful day, during the weekend, on the first day of vacation, or after a massage treatment.
How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Treat Migraines
For thousands of years, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicines have been used to relieve headaches and migraines, as well as their underlying causes. From a Traditional Chinese medical perspective, migraine is mainly due to invasion of wind and fire that cause meridian obstructions, and disturb the flow of blood and energy (Qi) in the head. Liver and kidney dysfunction and their pertaining meridians have also played important roles in the development process of migraines. Chinese medicine treatment for migraine aims to calm the liver and kidney, dispel the pathogens and unblock the meridians.
Generally, to be most effective, acupuncture treatments are used in combination with Chinese herbs, tui-na massage, and energetic exercises to restore imbalances found in the body. The specific treatment recommended to treat your headache or migraine may depend on a number of factors, including whether your headache is behind your eyes and temples, or if it troubles you at night, morning, or after eating. Other factors that can influence the type of treatment you’ll receive include the effect of light in your eyes, and whether your headache is a dull pain, if it throbs with each heartbeat, or if it’s sharp and piercing. The answer to these questions will help your acupuncturist select just the right combination of treatments for your pain.
Acupuncture is the most common therapy for migraine. Efficacy of acupuncture for migraine headaches has been reported by many independent studies. Clinical trials have shown significant decrease in the number of headaches and their duration after acupuncture treatment. The attacks were less severe and drug intake was reduced and did not re-increase until follow-ups. The major finding through these studies indicate that acupuncture stimulates endogenous morphine-like molecules, such as endorphin and monoamine, to block the pain signal.
Acupuncture does far more than just relieve pain, however; it modulates the endocrine and nervous system and stimulates self-healing processes of the body. A number of points along the stomach and gall bladder meridian on the shoulders, neck and head, are often used to affect these systems.
One significant note, however, is that acupuncture points on the head or upper body are not always used. In fact, sometimes these points may be avoided altogether. Normally, acupuncture needles increase blood circulation at their point of entry, as well as at corresponding points along their meridians. If a patient is already suffering from severe migraine pain due to over-dialtion of the blood vessels in the head, acupuncture here would only worsen the condition. Instead, the acupuncture points are focused on the lower parts of the body to effectively relieve the tension in the head. There are many corresponding acupressure points in the lower body and feet to effectively treat severe headache pain.
Chinese herbal medicine is another common therapy for migraine headaches. Chinese herbal medicine has been used to balance the body with natural products for thousands of years. The theory behind Chinese herbs is the unique Yin-Yang and Zang-Fu theory; the herbs are used to keep the body in balance and prevent future migraine pain. They can significantly reduce the pain, shorten the headache attack time, reduce the frequency of the migraine, and prevent the headache from happening. The duration of Chinese herbal treatment is usually 1-2 months and also depends on the individual patient’s condition.
Nutritional guidance is considered an important influence of health and illness in Chinese medicine and can complement the nature of each human body. Food is believed to be part of the medicine for migraine treatment and can greatly impact the result of herbal treatment. According to Chinese theory, food is classified into different groups depending on their nature and taste. Fatty, spicy, and greasy foods, as well as alcohol, coffee, chocolate, or sweets, can produce Dampness and Heat. Migraine patients should avoid those food items in their diet, especially for those patients diagnosed with the disharmony of the Liver. A properly designed diet plan by a Chinese medical practitioner will compensate the Yin-Yang nature of the body and benefit the overall long-term health of the patient.
The often stressful and busy lifestyles of the today’s society is one of the major contributing factors of migraine headaches and other related illnesses. Therefore, keeping a regular lifestyle with proper eating, exercise, and sleeping habits is important for migraine patients. Regular physical exercise, emotional control techniques and other calm activities can greatly aid in preventing migraine attacks.
Qi Gong is an ancient Chinese technique to actively promote circulation of energy (Qi) in the body and to adjust the body’s inner clock to that of the natural clock. Similar to Yoga meditation, Qi Gong is the Chinese way to control and cultivate the energy of our body. It also serves as an emotional control technique to prevent migraine headaches.
Tai Ji Quan is another popular exercise in Chinese society. It combines Qi Gong and physical exercise and allows people to practice regularly to relax and adjust the conflict among the organ systems caused by the modern lifestyle. Both Qi Gong and Tai Ji Quan can be very good self-help techniques for migraine. Other helpful exercises include yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation.
How Western Medicine Treats Migraines
Since there is no cure for migraines, Western medicine aims to help treat the symptoms in order to manage the condition. Most commonly prescribed are pain-relieving medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, to be taken during migraine attacks to stop symptoms that have already begun. Preventive medications, often taken on a daily basis,may also be recommended to reduce the severity or frequency of migraines. Some medications like antidepressant medicines, blood pressure medicines, seizure medicines, and even Botox injections have all been useful in preventing and treating migraines. Long-term use or over-use of many medications, however, can eventually cause other medical complications and/or chemical dependency.
Research and Related Articles on Migraines
Standardized set-point acupuncture for migraines
Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2013 Nov-Dec;19(6):32-7.
Effects of the acupoints PC 6 Neiguan and LR 3 Taichong on cerebral blood flow in normal subjects and in migraine patients
Neurological Sciences. 2014 May;35 Suppl 1:129-33. doi: 10.1007/s10072-014-1754-0.