Migraines are severe, chronic headaches that can cause significant pain for 4 to 72 hours. The frequency with which these headaches occur varies from person to person, from several times a month to much less frequently. A typical migraine attack may include symptoms of moderate to severe pain on one or both sides of the head, head pain with a pulsating or throbbing quality, pain that worsens with physical activity, pain that interferes with regular activities, nausea, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
A migraine may be preceded by sensations of “premonition” several hours or a day or so before the migraine actually strikes, such as auras (changes to vision, such as seeing flashes of light, and feelings of pins and needles in an arm or leg), feelings of elation or intense energy, cravings for sweets, thirst, drowsiness, or irritability or depression.
Migraines usually begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Although much about the cause of migraines isn’t understood, genetics and environmental factors seem to both play a role. They may be due to changes in the trigeminal nerve, a major nerve in the head or imbalances in brain chemicals such as serotonin (which drops during migraines). Migraines may be more common in people under 40, in women, and in people with a family history of migraines. Stress, certain foods, strong stimuli (such as lights, sounds or smells), disruptions to sleeping patterns, physical exertion, changes in the weather, medications, and hormonal changes can all trigger migraines.
Western medicine treatment for migraines includes medications to help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. Unfortunately, medications may cause side effects such as abdominal pain or ulcers or rebound headaches, which is when a medication stops being effective for the treatment of headaches and actually becomes the cause of headaches. Lifestyle changes that can help manage migraines include being well-rested and getting enough sleep, meditation or muscle relaxation exercises, and keeping a diary to identify migraine triggers.
From a Chinese medicine (TCM) perspective, migraines can be caused by a combination of inherited constitution and lifestyle factors such as diet and stress, including emotional stress and overwork. Over time these factors can contribute to a pattern of imbalance that leads to migraines. Because there are different causes for migraines, the symptoms that are experienced will differ from person to person, and so will the treatment. An acupuncturist can create a very targeted and effective treatment by catering it to a person’s specific causes.
For migraine sufferers, acupuncture is an option well worth considering, offering both immediate and long-term relief. Initially, acupuncture can help to relieve both the severity and frequency of migraine symptoms. In fact, it is common for people to see relief after a few acupuncture treatments, although more treatments are typically needed to resolve the problem.
As treatments progress and begin to rebalance the body, the frequency of migraine episodes begins to decrease. And long-term relief is possible- many patients reduce or eliminate their need for migraine medication through acupuncture, demonstrating just how effective an option acupuncture can be.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.