A migraine is a recurrent headache that is probably created by changes in the level of dilation of the blood vessels in the brain. Migraines vary in intensity, frequency and duration. They commonly start on one side of the head, spreading to other areas, and are often associated with nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances or other neurological sensations, weakness and even paralysis and mood disturbances. Migraines are often found to run in families and they therefore have a genetic factor.
A classic migraine may last up to 24 hours and 50 per cent of sufferers have warning symptoms known as auras, which can be anxiety, fatigue or any of the neurological symptoms mentioned above that occur before the pain comes on. A type of migraine known as ‘cluster headaches’ are migraine-like pains that usually localize around one eye and tend to occur in clusters of up to three or four headaches a day over a few days, but only recurring every few months.
Interestingly, one in five men and one in four women will suffer from migraines at some time in their lives. Very often the onset is in childhood. Most migraines start between the ages of 20 and 35 years and generally disappear as we get older.
The jury is still out on deciding which of several possible mechanisms is responsible for causing migraine. Even with the technically advanced use of specialized tests, there is still some debate. There are thought to be several main factors that can trigger a migraine, however.
Stress chemicals such as adrenaline and catecholamines
Stress chemicals cause the release of a chemical called serotonin from specialized blood cells called platelets. This chemical causes blood vessels to constrict, resulting in a reduced oxygen flow to parts of the brain. A rebound defence reflex occurs that causes an increase in blood flow, causing pressure on the nerves and also a release of a substance that triggers pain, known cleverly as substance P.
Food and other allergens, including pollutants Food intolerance and other toxins may trigger a stress chemical response as described above. A specific group of proteins known as amines that are found in alcohol, chocolate and cheese can all trigger attacks by directly causing vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels). The list of foods that have been found in many trials to cause problems is very long but isolating each individual’s food ‘triggers’ is necessary.
Any problem that can affect cranial blood flow may be relevant and malposition of the cranial bones, especially the jaw joint (known as the temporomandibular joint), is common.
Hormonal and other causes
Hormonal changes found in a normal female cycle, tiredness, weather changes and eye ‘strain’ can all precipitate migraines, as can withdrawal from drugs that cause vascular changes. A withdrawal syndrome may occur within a few hours of smoking a cigarette or drinking a cup of coffee and does not always refer to stopping a drug to which an individual is addicted or takes a lot of.
Keep a concise journal over a period of time that covers at least three migraines. This must include food intake, stress levels, times of the attacks and hours asleep. Try to isolate and alter any obvious causative factors from those mentioned above.
Consider food allergy testing but specifically eliminate caffeine, cheese and chocolate.
Learn a relaxation technique through yoga, Qi Gong or meditation.
Counselling, hypnotherapy and biofeedback techniques are all beneficial.
Consider cranial osteopathy or craniosacral work to correct any malalignment of the cranial and neck bones.
Polarity therapy and Alexander techniques to maintain posture may be relevant.
Acupuncture and acupressure (Shiatsu) have been shown to be very effective in reducing the frequency of attacks.
Homeopathic remedies should be chosen based on the symptoms, but pay special attention to the following homeopathic remedies that could be tried, one at a time, at potency 6 every half-hour in the ‘aura’ stage or every 10min if a migraine starts: Thuja and Spigalia for left-sided onset; Sanguinaria, Rhus toxicodendron and Iris for right-sided onset. Accurate prescribing based on the symptoms is essential, and referral to your favourite homeopathic manual or a homeopathic prescriber is preferable.
The following supplements may be beneficial and should be taken in divided doses throughout the day at the recommended dosage per foot of height: niacin (vitamin B3), lOmg; Magnesium lOOmg; Quercetinn lOOmg.
The herbal medicines capsicum taken at 5mg per foot of height in divided doses throughout the day and feverfew taken at the same levels may be beneficial.
For symptomatic relief, see Headache.
Orthodox drugs are available that work specifically against migraines. These need to be prescribed by a medical practitioner and should be considered only when alternative therapies have failed. Always try to take a minimum dose of a drug and even experiment by halving the dose recommended just in case you need less.