Bring in More Relievers!

Headache sufferers the world over take prescription pain relievers and over-the-counter drugs, potions and remedies to ease their symptoms.  These medicines sometimes work amazingly well,  sometimes only work for a while and then stop, sometimes don’t work at all.  Migraine victims, those with frequent and severe symptoms, may decide to take a prescription medication on a regular basis in order to head off or prevent symptoms from developing.

Many weary headache veterans, in an effort to get away from prescription and over-the-counter drugs, try to minimize and relieve their symptoms with lifestyle and diet changes and other creative solutions.  There are also serious and science-based research projects underway to examine complementary and alternative treatments and therapies for headache pain and discomfort.  Some of these CAM treatments include:

  • Spinal manipulation
  • Massage
  • Dietary supplements 
  • Mind and body interventions, such as relaxation training, acupuncture, tai chi and cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Biofeedback is also used, which involves very simple electronic monitors that help patients consciously regulate their breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.
What the science says about headaches and CAM
  • A technique often used by chiropractors, a review of the literature about this approach suggests that it may offer some benefit for tension-type headaches.  It may also prevent migraines as well as the medication amitriptyline.  Spinal manipulation is very unlikely to be harmful, except for high-speed neck manipulation, which is associated with the extremely rare but serious risk of stroke or arterial tearing.
  • Side effects  from spinal manipulation can include tiredness, temporary headache and discomfort in the parts of the body that were subjected to treatment.
  • There are only a few studies that have carefully and methodically examined the role of massage as a viable headache treatment.
  • A small 2008 study involving 16 participants suggested that massage was (perhaps) beneficial for symptom relief in tension-type headaches – reducing the intensity and duration of the pain as well as the frequency of onset.  Again, a very small study.
  • In another small study, researchers noted that a very specific kind of massage called craniosacral therapy was more effective than no treatment in relieving the pain of tension-type headaches.  Craniosacral therapy involves light touch and manipulation of the skull and spine to release restrictions in tissues.  Large studies are needed to further investigate this approach.
  • To help prevent migraines, researchers are presently investigating the place of massage therapy as a treatment option.  For example, a 2006 study assigned 24 migraine sufferers to receive a series of six 45-minutes massages that focused on the muscles of the back, neck, head and shoulders.  Another 24 without migraine acted as the control group.  There was no change in the average intensity of the migraines, but the researchers observed a significant reduction in migraine frequency among those treated with massages.
  • Side effects, cautions: While the number of serious risks are few if the treatment is performed by a licensed, trained therapist, there are some side effects: temporary pain, bruising, swelling, even allergy to the massage oils.  And there are some cautions:
  1. People with bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts, as well as those taking any blood thinners (such as warfarin) should avoid vigorous massage.
  2. Massage treatment should not be done in any part of the body with fractures, blood clots, open or healing wounds, skin infections or weakened bones (osteoporosis or cancer) or near a recent surgery site.
  3. Cancer patients should consult their oncologists before having massage therapy that entails any deep or intense pressure.  Direct pressure over a tumor is not recommended.
  4. Pregnant women should check with their doctors before any massage therapy just to be on the safe side.

Dietary Supplements:

  • There is much research currently being conducted to determine if, and which, dietary supplements can help prevent, relieve or reduce the frequency of headaches.
  • Riboflavin and coenzyme Q10 supplements may be helpful for headache symptoms.  The results of studies on the use of magnesium to prevent migraines were inconclusive.  Both riboflavin and coenzyme Q10 are usually well tolerated as supplements; magnesium supplements may cause diarrhea.
  • Both feverfew and butterbur have been used historically to relieve headaches.  Study results indicate that both herbs may reduce headache frequency. The use of feverfew in clinical trials was associated with some mild but unpleasant side effects, such as upset stomach and open sores in the mouth.  Butterbur, while typically well tolerated, may also cause some gastrointestinal upset.  There are, as well, some butterbur products that contain potentially harmful chemicals, pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), so be sure to look for a products certified or labeled as ‘PA-free’.
  • Butterbur, feverfew and riboflavin supplements are not recommended for pregnant women.  
Next up: mind and body practices.

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