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According to The World Health Organization (WHO), migraine headaches are within the top twenty causes of disability, and severe migraines are among the most disabling, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis. It is estimated that 25 percent of women and 8 percent of men will get a migraine at some point in their lives, which translates into one billion individuals worldwide. Most migraine sufferers are between the ages of 25 and 50, but children as young as five-years-old have been diagnosed with migraines.

What Is a Migraine?

A migraine is a severe and often chronic headache that can last for as little as three or four hours or as much as three or four days. The symptoms can be so severe as to be disabling. Some people who get migraines report having warning symptoms a day or two prior to the getting the debilitating headache, such as:

  • flashes of light
  • tingling in the limbs
  • nausea
  • unusual sensitivity to light and sound
  • cravings for sweets
  • extreme thirst
  • drowsiness
  • feelings of elation
  • intense energy
  • irritability or depression

The headache can cause moderate to severe pulsating pain on one or both sides of the head that worsens with physical movement and interferes with normal daily activity. There may be nausea and vomiting as well as sensitivity to light and sound. Another phenomenon of migraines is the experience of what is called an aura. A migraine with aura includes visual changes such as flashes of light or color, shimmering spots or stars, zigzag lines in the field of vision, blind spots or even temporary loss of vision. Along with the visual effects, many people also experience confusion and difficulty with speech.

Having a migraine with an aura effect has been shown to have an association with individuals who have died from heart disease, according to newly published research conducted by Larus Gudmundsson of the University of Iceland. The results, published in the August 2010 edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), were from a study conducted over a period of 40 years (starting in 1967) and included 18,725 males and females born between 1907 and 1935. Another more controversial study, also published by the BMJ, showed a possible connection between women who experience migraines with auras and hemorrhagic stroke.

What Causes a Migraine?

There is no one known cause for migraines, but genetics and environmental factors appear to have an influence on who gets them. Hormonal imbalances are also thought to be involved for some individuals. During a migraine, serotonin levels fall, resulting in a release of neuropeptides, which can cause headaches.

Because women are more than three times more likely to get them than men, it is believed that estrogen fluctuation may play a role in migraines. Many women report getting migraines just before or during their menstrual period when there is a significant drop in the hormone.

Certain foods seem to be associated with triggering migraines, including beer and red wine, aged cheeses, chocolate, caffeine, aspartame (an artificial sweetener) and monosodium glutamate (MSG) – used as a flavor enhancer. Not eating regularly, fasting or extreme dieting has also been linked to migraines.

Bright lights, strong or unusual smells, loud noises and other sensory stimuli can trigger migraines, as can changes in weather or barometric pressure. Stress has also been linked to migraines, though there is some disagreement among researchers. Stress may be a contributing factor, as it is also connected to unhealthy changes in diet, too much or too little sleep and other behaviors such as overexertion, which can result in migraines. Prescription medications can also cause or aggravate migraines.

Can Anything Help Ease Migraines?

While there is no one cure-all for migraines, there are several things that can be done to reduce their occurrence or ease some of the symptoms. Physicians will usually prescribe either pain-relief medication to be taken at the onset of pain or as a preventative medication taken daily.

Some of the medications have serious side effects. Abdominal pain, intestinal bleeding and ulcers have been associated with the long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen and aspirin. These drugs, if taken regularly, can also cause rebound headaches – headaches that occur as a withdrawal symptom of the medication. A rare but potentially life-threatening drug interaction can occur if you are already taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) and add triptans (sumatriptan or zolmitriptan), which are used specifically for treating migraines.

Many people do not like taking medications for migraines and turn to a local massage therapist, bodyworker or other health care professional who uses more natural alternatives. Some of the recommendations might include:

  • Acupuncture or Acupressure – Migraine pain is associated with the liver (LV), gall bladder (GB) and triple heater (TH) meridians. The points associated with relieving migraine pain include: LV2 and LV 3 on the foot; GB 20 – below the occiput and between the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle; GB 40 – in the depression anterior and inferior to the lateral malleolus; TH 5 – three fingers above TH4 between the radius and the ulna; and TH 23 – in the depression at the lateral end of the eyebrow.
  • Cranial-Sacral Therapy – This gentle touch therapy helps to release restrictions and tension in the meningeal membranes around the brain and spinal cord. It encourages the healthy flow of cerebrospinal fluid and allows the central nervous system to perform at optimal levels.
  • Swedish Massage – A gentle Swedish massage can help to quiet the nervous system, relax muscles, decrease pain and reduce stress. Getting a regular massage can help to not only reduce the frequency of migraines, but also ease the discomfort if a migraine occurs.
  • Dietary Supplements – Feverfew is a traditional plant that has been used to ease migraine symptoms. It is available as a tea or in capsules at many health food stores. It should never be taken by pregnant women. Magnesium oxide or magnesium sulfate taken as a supplement may lessen the frequency of migraines in some individuals who are deficient in magnesium, and vitamin B2 may help with the severity and occurrence as well.

Encouraging clients to keep a log or diary of pain and symptoms is perhaps the best way to determine if a headache is indeed a migraine. They can then bring this information to their primary health care provider to receive a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan. Without this diagnosis, care should be taken to avoid any bodywork or diet supplementation that involves increasing circulation on someone with severe, sudden or persistent head pain, which could be a warning sign of stroke.

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