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Migraine headaches and the symptoms of migraine are a common problem
with both biomedical and chinese medicine treatments. The cause
of migraines is unclear. There is speculation about allergy (primarily
food but also airborn), specific foods, scents, and environmental
toxic load. Despite the lack of clarity in cause, there are still
drug treatments and natural "cures" that provide relief for migraine
sufferers. Prevention forms a large part of the treatment for frequent
"migraineurs" whose symptoms are severe.
affect one tenth of Americans and cost us an estimated $5
to $15 billion per year. Migraines are three times more common
in women, and they peak at mid-life in both sexes. Everyone is
beginning to understand that migraines are a serious disorder
that steal our ability to work, study, play, and enjoy our families
and friends. It's not anonymous either; Elvis got migraines,
Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen does and Thomas Jefferson
did too. Nor are migraines simply an American problem; nearly
one third of Peruvians suffer from these terrible headaches.
The Symptoms of Migraine Headache
The pain is usually throbbing (because it is vascular). Migraines
may be one-sided (the word migraine is a 15th century adaptation
of the latin hemicranium, which means one side of the head) but
not necessarily; migraines can affect your entire head. They can
last from an hour to a few days, and often are accompanied by nausea
or vomiting. You may also suffer from light, sound, or smell-sensitivity.
Indeed, these last three may trigger your attacks. Migraines may
or may not be preceded by an aura. The migraine aura may be a visual
disturbance such as flashing lights or loss of peripheral vision,
or one-sided tingling or numbness, heaviness of limbs, or even difficulty
speaking. These are symptoms of the increased vascular pressure
in your brain.
Warning Signs of More Serious Problems
You should have a migraine diagnosed by a physician, because there
are more serious problems they need to rule out first. You don't
want to just be taking amerge or maxalt if you actually have a brain
tumor, and your Chinese Medicine doctor can't order you a CT scan
or MRI. If you're over 50, have more pain with chewing, and you
have a fever, you need to get checked out for Temporal Arteritis,
because that can lead to blindness if it's not treated! Here are
some more warning signs:
- Sudden violent pain
- More serious changes in speech, vision, and personality
- A headache that wakes you out of sleep
- Fever and a stiff neck
OK, so what causes migraines?
The short answer is that we don't know. Drug treatments for migraine
attacks (triptans like Imitrex, Zomig, Amerge, and Maxalt) work
pretty well. The theory is that they make up for the problems cause
by a lack of serotonin. However, they do not really understand the
initial cause - what sets in motion the cascade of events that culminates
in a migraine headache. There has been a good deal of research on
food allergies and diet, but it appears that they
are not the only factor. Each person may have different triggers
and sensitivities, so prevention is an individual solution that
must be worked out between you and your and doctor. From a Chinese
Medicine perspective (link to flaws amazon), we believe that emotional
excesses (stress, long-term emotional disturbance, even just long-term
frustration!), dietary imbalance (too much of the wrong foods and
too little of the right ones), and the deficiencies inherent in
the aging process (I like to call it 'maturing') can lead to the
symptoms of migraine.
Chinese Medicine Refines the Migraine Diagnosis
In Chinese Medicine, we diagnose each patient according to what
is called a pattern, or group of symptoms. There are 5
basic patterns involved in migraines (although real people are
complex and may have several patterns going on at the same time).
If there is enough interest, I can write a follow-up article on
the patterns and herbal formulas. But for now, you can get in touch
with a good Chinese Medicine herbalist and get a diagnosis and herbal
formula there. In fact, you may be recommended two formulas- one
for your attacks, and another one to take preventively.
Acupuncture for Migraines - The Pain "Reset
At the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, a prominent neurologist
told us in a guest lecture how acupuncture treats pain. His message
was that chronic pain signals can get 'grooved in' to the brain.
That means that even after the real problem has been totally eliminated,
the brain may still be "echoing" pain signals to us. Acupuncture
can act as a 'reset button' to end these echoes of pain. The sooner
you get acupuncture, the better, because the longer the pain is
there, the more difficult it is to change.
Since migraines are the culmination of many stressors and triggers,
you can view your condition as a nearly full glass of water.
If you pour more stressors and triggers in, it will overflow into
a migraine headache. However, if you keep the stressors and triggers
down, and lower the baseline level by clearing out the tensions
(qi stagnation), toxicities, inflammation (heat), plus strengthening
your systemic weaknesses, it will be harder for you to end up with
a migraine. You'll be stronger and less sensitive.
Migraine Prevention Step 1: Be regular in sleep, exercise, and
I have trouble with the sleep part of it at times when I feel like
staying up late to work. I have to consciously begin to wind down
hours beforehand by getting organized for the next day, putting
on some pajamas, making some relaxing tea, and reading a book. I
find it's best to read more dull or philosophical non-work-related
books. If I read anything exciting, I may get great ideas I don't
want to wait on. I save my inspirational material for the mornings
to get going on the right foot. More
And don't forget about naps. Many of us migraneurs have to lay
down with a pillow over our head when its really bad. I've found
that laying down for a bit works just as well to stave off an
attack if I am starting to get some initial warning signs.
The type of exercise that suits you depends on your constitution.
Some people are more naturally bound up and frustrated and need
aerobic exercise. Others are more tired and should walk moderately.
If you do the appropriate exercise for you, you improve your body's
ability to function healthily. Don't overdo it, and don't underdo
My two biggest obstacles to regular eating are appetite and work.
I'm not as hungry in the morning. I drink a protein/carbo shake
so that I'm not running on empty, and it's not hard to digest.
Then, if I get too involved in work, I may forget to eat. I have
to take regular breaks to reconnect with myself and God so that
I can be connected with my body and know the best way to take
care of it.
Migraine Prevention Step 2: Discover your Stressors and Triggers
and Eliminate Them!
Migraines can be caused by many factors. The key is to discover
yours and eliminate them.
Some people have many food allergies, while other people have
none. Food allergies are hard to track because today's symptoms
may be from any food in the last 3 days. Your physician or Chinese
Medicine doctor can order you a pretty complete blood test for
food allergies through Great
Smokies Diagnostic Laboratories. This is much easier and more
reliable than a several-month-long elimination diet. Even if you
are allergic to foods, you don't have to totally give up them
up. You just rotate them (eat them less often).
I had to (very relunctantly!) quit drinking coffee and espresso.
I wasn't 100% sure they were a problem, but I knew that, for my
Chinese constitutional type, they could be. I have had less migraines
and less frustration since I quit, so I see that as one step in
my journey toward health and away from migraines! I didn't totally
give up caffeine; I still drink green tea moderately in the morning
or if I feel tired.
If your migraines are stress or emotion-related, you have two
options: cut out the source of the stress (a person, a job, a
task, a situation), or work on your reaction to the stressor.
I realize not all of us can just change jobs, and we may not feel
right expelling a person from our lives, so the better way is
to work on our buttons (the ones they push). I am working on an
article on this topic for the June 2002 issue. If you need help
sooner, just email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Migraine Prevention Step 3: See Your Chinese Medicine Herbalist
and Take Chinese Herbal Formulas
Your acupuncturist may or may not be capable of this. Herbal education
standards vary across the United States; some acupuncturists have
no training in Chinese Herbal Medicine, while some are as advanced
as or more than those in China. Chinese Herbal Medicine is very
complex (uses multiple herbs in specific combinations), and can
be very effective. Everyone gets a slightly different formula because
we're all unique. There are pre-formulated versions, but even then
your formula may be different from your significant other, cousin,
or dog's herbal formula.
As I mentioned above, you will probably be recommended one (acute)
formula to take during attacks, and another to take preventively
between attacks. This is a good thing, because while you are still
working on steps 1 and 2, you will still be experiencing migraines
more frequently, and you will rely on the acute formula more.
As you improve, you will use the preventive formula more. If you
get this far and have changed your lifestyle in steps 1 and 2,
you may eventually be completely cured.
Is This a Natural Cure for Migraine Headaches?
No one is 100% sure what causes migraines, so it's not 100% certain
that all migraneurs can be cured. Our goal is treatment, management,
and prevention. For my migraines, I use a combination of western
and eastern medicine. I take several herbal formulas both preventively
and acutely, and sometimes I even take Excedrin Migraine. I find
I cannot take the excedrin at night, though, because it contains
caffeine, and I believe staying up late would lead to a continuing
of the imbalances that cause my migraines. That is why prevention
and herbal remedies are so integral to the management of migraine
If you need more, we also have these articles on migraine