Massage Therapy for Migraines
Migraines aren’t a good time, as someone who suffers from episodic migraines and went through a few years of chronic and totally debilitating migraines I am all too familiar with the impact they can have on our lives socially, physically and psychologically. I personally know that migraine sufferers can miss a lot of work, have to cancel last minute plans with family and friends and can find it harder to stick to an exercise routine with the constant interruption of this unwelcomed and sometimes frequent visitor.
Besides the pain, people also have to worry about all of the migraine misinformation and what people like their boss, family and friends think - or don’t know - about what it’s like to have a migraine. This article will help you understand more about what experts believe is actually happening and hopefully give you a few pointers on how to navigate a life with migraines.
What’s a Migraine?
Migraines are more than just a bad headache. Right now, there is no known “cure” for migraines. Research is still limited, but education for healthcare professionals and the public is growing. Originally, experts thought that migraines were caused by the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in the head, causing the source of severe pain. Current research is suggesting that migraines are actually a neurological disorder involving nerve pathways and brain chemicals.3 There is now evidence to support the idea that migraines run in the family (“90% of migraine sufferers have a family history of migraines”)4, but studies show that environmental factors also play an important role.3
A migraine is an intense pulsing or throbbing pain. The pain is usually focused in one area of the head, but both sides are affected in about one-third of attacks. To be diagnosed as a migraine, this pain must happen at least five times and last for 4-72 hours when untreated. Other common symptoms include sensitivity to light (Photophobia), sound (Phonophobia), touch (Allodynia), smell (Hyperosmia), nausea/vomiting, dizziness (Vertigo), visual disturbances or an “aura” (zig-zag lines, flashing lights or temporary loss of vision that occur in 25% of people and usually last less than an hour) and tingling in the extremities or face. In 15-20% of attacks, symptoms start to show before the actual head pain begins.3,4
Common Triggers of Migraines
Triggers will vary from person to person and can change throughout someone’s lifetime. Some common triggers include stress, food sensitivities/additives, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, delayed or missed meals, physical exertion, anxiety, depression, sensory stimuli, sleep changes, weather changes, alcohol and drug use and hormonal changes in women. It usually takes a lot of trial and error to pinpoint someone’s specific triggers, and it can be an overwhelming task to attempt alone. Working with your family doctor, Naturopath or Dietitian can narrow the list down and find something that works for you.
Social & Economic Stats About Migraines
It’s important you know you are not alone in suffering from migraines. Migraines are the third most prevalent and sixth most disabling illness in the world. They affect over 1 billion people worldwide.4 Statistics in Canada are limited, but in the USA an estimated 39 million people are affected. Out of this number, 18% are women, 6% are men and 10% are children.4
A survey by Eli Lilly and Company (February 20, 2018)2 found that people who suffer from migraines have an increased impact on their day-to-day life. Out of the 1018 adults who took part in this survey, 518 people had been diagnosed with migraines. Out of these people, 91% said that “those who do not suffer from migraines don’t understand the severity of the illness.”62% try to hide the true impact from those at work or school, 82% felt the stress of having an unpredictable illness like migraines and 70% agreed with the statement, “I’ve avoided making plans because of migraine.”
And on average missed 7.4 gatherings such as birthdays, holiday gatherings and graduations within the last year. There was also a high percentage of parents who felt that their migraines affected their ability to take care of their family and they were unable to interact with their children in the way that they would like.
The study also highlighted the impact on careers of people suffering from migraines. 68% agreed they are less productive at work, 55% believe migraines have had a negative effect on their career goals, and 32% have admitted to turning down opportunities - even promotions - because of migraines.
Migraines affect the people around sufferers as well. 90% of those who have a family member suffering from a migraine attack agreed they feel “helpless” and 74% would like this person to seek better care or treatment to help.
For anyone who suffers from migraines, these statistics may hit close to home. I can personally relate to how migraines have affected my daily activities and, at the peak of my chronic migraines, caused stress and helplessness for both me and my loved ones. So, it is easy to see that migraines are about more than the physical pain. They directly affect everything from our careers to our relationships, and everything in between. You are not alone.
How Manual Therapy Can Help With Migraines
My migraines are why I became a Registered Massage Therapist. At the height of my chronic migraines, I desperately sought the help of an RMT to find any amount of relief from the pain. It helped me through a difficult time - and I knew that I wanted to and could help others.
Manual therapy such as massage, acupuncture and chiropractic, can help by decreasing stress, reducing muscle tension around the neck, shoulders and upper back, and desensitizing your nervous system. As manual therapy practitioners, our goal is to create a safe space to help you on your path to wellness. Again, “there is no cure” for migraines yet, but by decreasing stress and tension, prescribing you personalized home-care stretching, exercises or mindfulness practices, we can hope to decrease both the intensity and frequency of migraine attacks.5
Most people hold their tension in their shoulders and neck. For many of us, these can trigger migraines if the affected areas have become increasingly sensitive, especially when additional physical or mental stress is piled on. This increased sensitivity is our body trying to protect us and warn us of potential danger or damage. Sometimes our bodies can overreact a bit and attempt to warn us even if there’s no actual physical damage.5
By receiving a personalized combination of semi-regular massage, acupuncture, chiropractics, and/or physiotherapy and being proactive with your self-care plans (which we can help you make), you can start managing the stress in your life more efficiently. Reduced stress and better stress management is a great way to rid yourself of that muscle tension before it becomes a migraine. Best of all, you will start to replace those potential “warning” signals with a “safe” signal that feels so much better. This “safe” signal will help to decrease the sensitivity in your neck and shoulders and, hopefully, make migraines much easier to manage.
The path to reducing and managing migraines is a personal one, and it’s different for everyone. From my personal and professional experience, I can attest to how much manual therapy can help. Start with the knowledge that you’re not alone in your suffering, and consider asking for help from your doctor, naturopath and manual practitioners to find out how we can help you on your path to wellness.
1. Golden L. Peters, PharmD, BCPS
Supplements and Featured Publications, Current, New, and Emerging Therapies for the Prevention and Management of Migraine, Volume 25, Issue 2
2. Survey reveals many people with migraine live with pain nearly half of every month [news release]. Eli Lilly and Company: Indianapolis, IN; February 20, 2018.
3. Migraine Research Foundation https://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/what-is-migraine/
4. Migraine Research Foundation https://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/
5. Noseda R, Burstein R. Migraine pathophysiology: anatomy of the trigeminovascular pathway and associated neurological symptoms, cortical spreading depression, sensitization, and modulation of pain. Pain. 2013;154(suppl 1):S44-S53. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.