Over 35 million Americans suffer from migraine headache. If you are one of them, you know that this severe headache can affect your work, your family and relationships and the way in which you view the world.
A migraine headache is usually throbbing or pulsating and starts on one side of the head, often behind the eyes, in the temple or at the base of the skull. It may be preceeded by changes in vision, such as flashing lights, loss of vision in one spot, tunnel vision, lightning-like zig zags of light or blurry vision. This is called an aura. Usually, it becomes hard to read or concentrate, thinking becomes "cloudy" and it may even be difficult to talk. As the headache progresses, it spreads to all areas of the head and becomes very intense. Nausea and vomitting can be present and severe. Sensitivity to light, sounds or smell is often present. The migraine sufferer may also feel neck pain, especially at the base of the skull, scalp tenderness, sinus congestion or cold hands and feet. The headache can last from a few hours or up to 72 hours or more. A variant of migraine called a cluster headache can continue to re-occur several days in a row.
The exact mechanism of migraine headache is not well understood. It is thought to be caused by infalmmation of the blood vessels and nerves at the base of the brain. Genetics seems to play a role because migraine headache runs in the family. Environmental factors such as food or stress can also trigger a headache. Hormones also play a role.
Brain chemicals also influence migraines. Serotonin is a brain chemical that causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels). When serotonin levels drop, blood vessels open up (vasodilation). This starts the migraine headache. Many things can cause serotonin levels to drop such as hormonal changes, blood sugar levels and certain foods. Other substances that can trigger a migraine headache by causing vasodilation are histamines (found in alcohol, especially red wine), nitrates (in preserved lunch meats and sausages), tyramine (cheese), and phenylalanine (beef, pork, poultry, dairy, eggs, soy products, aspartame and some nuts and seeds). See the complete food list below.
The majority of individuals who experience migraines have joint alignment or joint restrictions in the neck, especially in the uppermost neck at the base of the skull. The nerves which exit at these levels, C1 and C2, send branches that communicate with a major nerve junction box in the brain called the superior cervical ganglion. This cluster of nerves is part of your autonomic nervous system which controls involuntary actions like vasodilation and vasoconstriction, breathing, heart rate, and the actions of organs such as the stomach and intestines. Irritation of the C1 and C2 nerves can stimulate the superior cervical ganglion to cause vasodilation in the blood vessels and nerves of the brain and start a migraine headache. Check out the 3D simulator on the right hand side of our home page. Click on the 'launch' button, and then on 'start here'. You can click on any vertebra to see the nerves and organs controlled by each level. Click on C1 and C2 for an illustration.
Medical treatment of migraine headache is attempted two ways. First, prophylactic treatment by taking medication daily to prevent attacks from occurring. Typically used meds are anti-depressants, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and anti-seizure medications. Secondly, rescue medication is used to treat migraine attacks when they occur. Over the counter meds and others are used. Examples are Axert, Maxalt, Imitrex, Cafergot and Midrin. These medications have potentially serious side effects and can cause a type of headache called a rebound headache.
Because of the serious side effects of these medications, chiropractic treatment provides a good alternative. Chiropractic adjustments realign the vertebra, remove restrictions in the spine and decrease joint and nerve irritation. The problem can be in the neck, imbalance in the pelvis, a short leg on one side or other postural or mechanical problems. Our experienced Doctors of Chiropractic will evaluate your bones, muscles, joints and nerves, determine the cause of the problem and design a treatment plan specifically for you. In addition to chiropractic manipulation, a typical teatment plan could include education as is provided here, acupuncture, electrical therapy, nutritional counseling or supplements, rehabilitative exercise and prevention strategies.