Finding the underlying cause of your migraine headaches is the key to choosing the right treatment.
The real cause of migraines is not known for sure, though it is thought to involve the “trigeminovascular” system, which is different for migraineurs (people whose hard wiring makes them capable of having migraines) from those who cannot have migraines. It is believed that this hard wiring is responsible for the cascade. Unfortunately, this is something you are stuck with, though it doesn’t mean migraine relief is not attainble.
Many times people will turn to prescriptions for daily drugs to ease the pain of their migraines, but these only treat the symptom. Your headache may retreat temporarily, but it will come back with a vengeance because the real underlying triggers haven’t been addressed. And not just the food triggers and caffeine everybody knows about. More and more we are finding that chronic headaches are a result of sleep disorders, stress, pinched nerves in the back or neck, or sinus issues.
I have identified some common triggers as well as ways to treat them that don’t involve just taking a prescription drug. What you will see is that by addressing the triggers, you will be relieving your headache pain and reducing the onset of your migraines.
1. Change Your Sleep Position
For a long time it has been recommended to strive for a consistent sleep schedule to help with migraine relief. However, in my experience there is actually no relationship between migraines and REM sleep. Instead, we have found a causative link between neck problems, sleep position/quality, and migraines in those patients with the trigeminovascular system capable of the migraine cascade. So, if you are prone to migraines, sleeping on your stomach is not going to help your situation as it can cause neck pain and places strain on your lower back — which we are finding is related to migraines. Instead, try supine sleep — laying on your back — to help reduce the strain. Additionally, appropriate Physical Therapy can help you addressing neck and abnormal shoulder movement patterns, which can be enormously helpful in migraine patients.
2. Manage your stress through biofeedback and relaxation training.
Some headaches are triggered by stress. You’ll always have stressors in your life, but there are ways to manage stress so it doesn’t impact your health. Biofeedback and relaxation training (a technique you can use to learn to control your body’s functions) can be extremely effective at treating stress headaches. Many headache sufferers have great results with cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches you how to control your physical response to stress. If your headaches are less severe, you can try DIY relaxation training methods such as exercise, deep breathing, massage, meditation, hypnosis, tai chi, yoga, music and art therapy.
3. Determine if your headaches are caused by pinched nerves.
Headaches triggered by pinched nerves in the upper spine are very painful, but can be easier to pinpoint. Pinched nerve headaches are frequently caused by poor sleeping position, bad posture, and professions that require staying in one position for long periods of time (such as sitting at an office desk with the head in a head-forward position). Retraining your body isn’t easy and usually requires physical therapy by PT specialists in neck and shoulder therapy. Changing the sleeping position you’ve become accustomed to may even require a sleep evaluation, especially if you always have to sleep on your side or your tummy.
Look into adjusting your work routine so you can change positions throughout the day. This might include taking short breaks to stand up and stretch or adding a standing desk. Acupuncture can also be an effective treatment, although its efficacy depends on the practitioner. And the so-called “dry needle” therapy practices by a small number of highly trained and qualified physical therapists can help reset the muscle tone in critical muscles whose spasm can trigger abnormal movements and headache.
Of course there are many times that drugs may be needed to treat a headache. But, in my experience there are many cases in which these alternative treatments actually give more effective and lasting results, if done properly, than prophyllactic medications you have to take every day. The most important thing to remember is if your headaches are becoming hard to control, find a headache center that will take a comprehensive and personalized approach. Don’t just get on the pill merry-go-round or buy the latest gadget “guaranteed” to cure your headache. Find out what really triggers your headache cascade, so you can take your life back!