An acquaintance of mine mentioned she started getting a neck and shoulder massages from a massage therapist, when I stopped by. "Do you have a pinched nerve?" I asked. "No, I just get bad headaches about once a week, and we were hoping this would help," she replied. She told me about the time she was out of town and had to drive back home when a migraine hit. That sounded a bit scary to me.
So I started looking around for other natural approaches to relieving headaches, anything that I could pass along to her to help manage these attacks. Fortunately there is a great deal of material out there in natural health magazines and online.
Causes or Scapegoats, as the Case may Be
The causes of migraines can be broken down into four main groups, according to Victoria Anisman-Reiner.
- Dehydration -- One estimate (probably unverifiable) states that 90% of headaches are 'cured' with a glass of water. The formula for estimating your water needs is: ½ oz. per pound of body weight. So if you weigh 150 lbs., your quota is 75 oz., or a little over a gallon (in other words, 8-9 glasses).
- Allergies or Reactions. The most common food allergies are Dairy, Oranges, Chocolate, Wheat, and Corn. Now that most of the corn grown in this country is genetically modified, and most of the sweetener used in commercially produced prepared foods and sodas uses corn syrup, more people than ever are becoming allergic to corn. But several other foods also can be triggers. They include soy, artificial sugars, eggs, MSG, coffee, artificial colors and flavors, and all the seasonal allergens like tree or grass pollen and ragweed, plus pet dander and dust. Identifying and eliminating these allergens from your diet and home can become a job in itself.
- Structural Misalignment. The treatment in this case is Craniosacral therapy. More about that below.
- Everybody's favorite scapegoat, Stress. We have little control over many of the outside stressors like inflation, the evening news, or family and job pressures. We do have some control over how we manage stress so that we release it in ways that will not harm our physical or mental selves. The old standard prescription of rest, proper diet, and a solid household routine, plus family therapy where needed, should keep stress within manageable bounds. Find ways to play and things that make you laugh.
- Estrogen DominanceThis fifth cause is according to MigraineInformation.net. This site recommends keeping a journal to determine where in the cycle the migraine hits, and balancing the woman's natural hormones again by: eating only hormone-free meats, avoiding toxic cleaners and pesticides, adding plenty of fiber to the diet so that estrogen can bind to it, supplementation with vitamins and DHEA, and the use of a non-synthetic progesterone cream. They also list milk thistle as another herb that is helpful for headaches.
Natural Options: Plenty to Choose From
Natural options include magnesium, Vitamin B2, and feverfew supplements (the "triple therapy" adopted by some holistic practitioners), craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, yoga for relaxing tense muscles and meditation for stress relief. Try the simplest treatments first, like an ice pack to the forehead, temples, or crown of the head. Another simple remedy is White Flower Analgesic Balm; while it is usually meant for muscle aches, its essential oils applied to the temples also alleviate minor headaches. Ingredients include oils of lavender, eucalyptus, and wintergreen, plus menthol and camphor.
Feverfew has undergone some very favorable studies that show it alleviates many kinds of headache -- a 1985 article in British Medical Journal, a 1988 double-blind study which appeared in Lancet, a 1997 Israeli double-blind study, among others. The University of Exeter in the U.K. collected six of the best double-blind studies and published a review in 2000, concluding that feverfew was indeed effective in preventing migraines.
No standard dose is mentioned, altho most recommend 50 to 100 mg. Some precautions should be mentioned, as with any medication. Feverfew can cause nausea and muscle stiffness, and chewing can produce mouth ulcers. Patients taking blood thinners like Coumadin should not take any of this herb, and pregnant women should also avoid it because it can cause contractions.
More About Craniosacral Therapy
I first read about this treatment as a migraine therapy in an article written for Body and Soul's June issue. The author relates her long experience with migraines which grew quite worse after a move and motherhood. Some sufferers gain relief after one or two treatments, though some need up to ten hour-long sessions.
Craniosacral therapy is a massage technique although it differs from normal massage in that the patient usually remains clothed and may lie on a treatment table or couch. The treatment does not involve force or manipulation, but is a gentle and distinct form of therapy. The therapist touches the skull and/or sacrum to adjust and rebalance the cerebrospinal system. It may be performed by a massage therapist or by a physiotherapist, or by an osteopath.
It is based on the fact that the cranio-sacral system has a distinct pulse of its own, separate from the cardiac pulse. In addition to headaches, neck and back pain, it's been used effectively on jaw dysfunction, chronic fatigue, muscle coordination difficulties, depression, eye problems, hyperactivity, central nervous system disorders and many other conditions In general, CranioSacral Therapy does a very good job of normalizing autonomic nervous activity. (Wong, 2008).
The cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI), and is very distinct from the pulse of arteries brought about by the heartbeat which can be felt at the wrist and neck. The CRI fluctuates between 8 to 12 cycles/minute. -- Craniosacral therapy is very safe and has very few contraindications, which include: acute raised intracranial pressure, a recent CVA (stroke), or a recent fracture of the skull or pelvis (AltMed webpage).
Actually, practitioners learn to distinguish three different and overlapping cranial pulses: the first at 8-12 cycles per minute, the cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI) as mentioned above; the second ('mid-tide') at about 2.5 cycles per minute and the last, called the 'long tide', a deep and slow rhythm at once every 100 seconds (Kern). The therapist coaxes the body to rebalance itself and correct areas of too much pressure on any one of the twelve cranial nerves, any one of which can affect sensory or motor impulses to and from the brain.
Unlike other practitioners, who attempt to fix an abnormality themselves by manipulation or other active treatment modalities, the craniosacral therapist acts passively to coax the body itself to take over the healing process. This is done by facilitating the normal flow of energy from the CRI throughout the body, and the subsequent mobilization of body tissues around the site of injury. It must be stressed that all the healing that takes place is done by the body, not the therapist. The therapist acts as a sort of mediator between the site of injury and the Breath of Life. Once the CRI can flow freely through the injured tissue, the body heals itself (AltMed webpage).
One of the more intriguing sources speculates on the link between migraines and serotonin. Jennifer Gerics of Suite101 online mused on the possible link between the two in a short item. Migraines often occur when there is a sharp drop in serotonin in the bloodstream, and chocolate is known to provide a feel-good dose of serotonin.
Following that line of thought, I looked up some more on serotonin. The body cannot produce this chemical without tryptophan, which is fortunately rather easy to find in common foods. Low serotonin levels are associated with mood disorders (like depression and insomnia), anxiety, and food cravings (for sweets, especially). Common foods that will provide a healthy dose of tryptophan are:
• mung beans • turkey • asparagus • sunflower seeds (and nuts)
• cottage cheese • pineapple • tofu • spinach • bananas • chicken
• salmon (and lobster, but who can afford that?) • sardines • tuna • nuts • oats
Balancing one's diet, body mechanics, and lifestyle can be a lifetime project, but I can only hope that this article has given readers a few suggestions that can be painlessly incorporated into your health regimen.
PS - Came across a folk medicine treatment for headaches which does have some scientific principles behind it. The treatment involves putting an ice pack behind the neck while soaking the feet in hot water. This is based on hydrostatic principles. Application of cold causes vasoconstriction (shrinking of the blood vessels) while application of heat causes vasodilation (expansion of the blood vessels). Headaches are generally a symptoms of blood congestion in the head/neck area. So applying ice to the head or neck tends to flush blood out of the area, and the hot water at the feet also encourages blood to move down. So this is a very logical approach to treating headaches.
AltMed.Creighton.edu, an overview of Cranio-Sacral Therapy, http://altmed.creighton.edu/cst/, undated.
Anisman-Reiner, Victoria, Relief for Migraine Headaches, NaturalMedicine.Suite101.com, naturalmedicine.suite101.com/article.cfm/relief_for_migraine_headaches, Jan. 2007.
The Migraine Trust FACT SHEET PDF: http://www.migrainetrust.org/module_images/FactSheet%2023%20-%20craniosacral%20therapy.pdf, Nov. 2007. (This is a British fact sheet.)
Gerics, Jennifer, Migraines and Serotonin Connection: Is this Why People Crave Sweets Before a Headache?, NeurologicalIllness.Suite101, Oct. 2006.
"Healthy U", Northwestern Health Sciences University, Craniosacral Therapy May Help Patients with Chronic Problems, http://www.nwhealth.edu/healthyU/liveNaturally/cranio.html, undated.
Kern, M., What is Craniosacral Therapy?, The Craniosacral Therapy Association of North America, www.craniosacraltherapy.org, undated. (This Association has a good FAQ page at http://www.craniosacraltherapy.org/FAQ.htm.)
Mitchell, Barbara J., Feverfew May Be Worth A Try for Migraines, Migraines.org, Jan. 2000.
Wong, Cathy, Professor of Biomechanics in Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine from 1975 through 1983, Craniosacral Therapy for Migraines, altmedicine.about.com/cs/headachemigraine/a/CSTMigraines.htm, Jan. 2008.