Ask anybody who has ever experienced it and they will tell you that a migraine is more than just a headache. Migraines are an incredibly prevalent debilitating neurological phenomenon which regularly affect more than 38 million people in the U.S. alone and over 1 billion worldwide. I have seen hundreds of various headache sufferers in my practice - from children with vomiting migraines since they were 2 years old, to adults who are miserable but “have learned to just live with it”, to those who must get into bed, hide under their blanket, cover their ears and eyes, and tell their kids that this is “leave mommy alone time”. One of the most frustrating things about seeing migraine patients is their lack of hope. Oftentimes they have seen a practitioner years ago that told them it is genetic and there is nothing that can be done except take medication when you feel a migraine coming on. Even then, most of the time, they have given up on the drugs even working. If you are reading this article, you either currently suffer from migraines or you know someone close to you who does. Fortunately, there is often a solution. Unfortunately, we are often “the last resort”.
Migraine is an extremely incapacitating collection of neurological symptoms often accompanied by:
Visual disturbances - including an “aura” which occurs in about 25% of sufferers
Dizziness, Vertigo, inability to visually focus
Extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch, smell
Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world
Migraine is the 6th most disabling illness in the world
More than 90% of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during a migraine
Every 10 seconds someone goes to the ER complaining of severe headache
3x more women (18%) suffer from migraines than men (6%) - 28 million women in the U.S.
Roughly 1 in 4 women will suffer a migraine in their lifetime
63% have one or more migraine attack per month
25% have one or more migraine attack per week!
More than 4 million suffer from chronic daily migraines (15+ migraine days/month)
Healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraine are est. $36 billion/year
Healthcare costs are 70% higher for a family with a migraine sufferer
Based on data from Forbes in 2015, that would put the average family of 4 at roughly $42,000 per year for medical expenses!!!!!
American employers lose more than $13 billion/year as a result of 113 million lost work days
U.S. headache sufferers receive $1 billion worth of brain scans each year
The worst thing about migraines is the strange combination of:
1) the incredible impact on the individual’s health - hiding in bed or under your cubicle in silence is no way to live your life;
2) the incredible impact on our country financially with healthcare service costs involved but more important the workforce disability costs; and
3) the lack of any successful or reliable answer for a cause OR solution from the medical field.
Migraines and (headaches in general) are always very different from person to person, and this makes “diagnosing” them correctly very difficult. They can’t be measured, they are often hard to describe, and they can be completely different each time. Brain scans are incredibly expensive and don’t give many answers, nor do MRIs or CT scans. Headaches and migraines are like a puzzle; different pieces will fit in different places and help complete the puzzle. Some puzzles are harder to solve than others. Often the smallest things can make huge improvements. Because headaches and migraines are so variable it is impossible to say for sure that any given solution will help you, but we have seen amazing results with headaches and migraines in our office (look at our testimonial page it’s full of migraine and headache stories!) through our integrative approach looking at three key areas of the wellness puzzle - nutrition, detoxification and cellular healing, and chiropractic.
Most (if not all) modern health conditions have a nutritional component, and headaches and migraines are no exception. Looking at the relationship from a big picture view, your nutrition largely controls your level of inflammation. Think about the last headache you had - you could probably feel the inflammation and pressure inside your skull. This isn’t to say that migraines are exclusively an “inflammation problem”, but inflammation is not going to help and it’s a great place to start. Decreasing inflammation is key with headaches and migraines. A good place to start is by increasing your omega-3 fats with salmon or fish oil and using anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric. These directly affect inflammatory pathways and instantly down-regulate inflammation. This is very general advice, and I’m not saying you should go out and take the first fish oil you find and take it forever. Everybody is different and it is very hard to know how much omega-3 your body needs without the proper testing. Although it’s possible to create a great nutrition plan without testing, I like to get basic inflammatory markers initially to see if overall inflammation is a problem. If it is, it needs to be addressed immediately!
If you google which foods can trigger a migraine, it would be much simpler to make a list of which foods DO NOT trigger migraine. It’s almost everything. Some of the bigger culprits include:
Alcohol - especially red wine
Food Additives - Nitrites/Nitrates, Aspartame, MSG
Pickled or Fermented Foods
If you think your migraines are food-related, an elimination diet can be very helpful because you will find obvious triggers and avoid them. It can also be very frustrating, because for many people it takes months of discovering different triggers, eliminating them, experimenting, then finding the next trigger, eliminating a trigger and the headache still comes. Sometimes your trigger may not be the food itself but may be a component of the food - natural or added. Begin by eating a Real Food diet. This means no additives, no chemicals, no MSG, aspartame, sucralose, food dyes, hydrogenated oils. These changes alone can decrease headache and migraine intensity and frequency dramatically! After implementing a Real Food diet, I recommend taking a detailed food diary and noting any trends. Food sensitivities don’t always show up immediately, so look at everything you did the day of a migraine and the day(s) before - foods you’ve eaten, personal care products used, emotional stress level, exercise performed, how you slept the night(s) before. I’ve had patients notice they trigger migraines after running 7 miles, but not if they run 6 miles. A headache or migraine diary is a good idea whether or not you are going to do lab testing!
The easiest way to find food sensitivities is to use a lab to test your body’s immune reactivity to all foods at once. At Align Utah we use Cyrex labs, the world’s leader in autoimmune reactivity testing. Cyrex tests over 180 different food allergens including the foods themselves raw AND cooked but also some more obscure allergens like spices, herbs, gums, lectins, meat glues, and food colorings. The testing is (quite frankly) more expensive than other sensitivity tests I’ve seen, but much more comprehensive. You should make your decision based on how severe your migraines are and how sick you are of suffering with them. Many migraine victims find solutions without testing. However, I have witnessed that people are often to the point where they are frustrated enough with the lack of answers that they are ready for the best testing to find a solution. This doesn’t mean we ever find a one and only answer, but it can be a big piece of the puzzle and a great place to start.
Detoxification and Cellular Healing
Toxins can be another huge trigger for migraines. Many acute exposures cause immediate symptoms - the most obvious being chemicals in personal care products, especially perfumes, or cleaning products. Chemicals like phthalates, parabens, and BPA are added to your personal care products, fluoride and chlorine are added to your water, and MSG, aspartame, and hydrogenated oils are added to your foods. If you understand the toxic bucket analogy, you understand how toxins trigger migraines - one more drop in the toxic bucket causes it to overflow! Many migraine sufferers have experienced a toxin-induced migraine - from a cologne or perfume, a cleaning product, an inversion or other pollution. Check our past Real Health articles and Real Health podcast episodes for Top 10 Toxic Personal Care Products and more information on sources of toxins.
Avoiding these toxins is key. Change out your personal care products (we use two companies called Abba’s Set Apart Remedies (local) and Pure Haven Essentials), filter your air, filter your water, & eat real food. This is the first and most important place to start, but then you must remove any toxins that are stored in your body, and lastly, fix the damage the toxins have caused to your cells. Toxins create cellular inflammation which decreases the body’s natural ability to detoxify, decreases hormone sensitivity leading to weight gain and other hormone imbalances, and destroy your body’s ability to produce enough energy leading to fatigue and brain fog. By using our True Cellular Detox program and cellular healing strategies we effectively address these issues at the cellular level and restore your cell’s natural, normal energy and detox functions. Once again, it’s critical for all migraine sufferers to:
Remove the source - avoid toxic exposures, especially those you are sensitive to
Remove stored toxins from cells - fat cells and brain cells particularly
Fix the damage the toxins have caused on the cellular level
Chiropractic has always helped greatly with migraines. Unfortunately not enough people know about the benefits which often end up being the “last resort” that actually works. If you look at our testimonials on our website you see many about headaches and migraines, including people who have had MRIs, brain scans, CT scans, pain pills, steroids, botox, you name it. For a long time chiropractic care was the only approach we used in our office, and many people got well. If there was one thing I would suggest for a loved one suffering from migraines, it would be “go see a chiropractor.” In fact, several clinical trials show that chiropractic improves migraine headaches. In one study of people with migraines, 22% of those who received chiropractic manipulation reported more than a 90% reduction of attacks. Also, 49% reported a significant reduction of the intensity of each migraine. But how does chiropractic help with migraines??
Your spine is made up of hundreds of joints that all work together to hold you upright and allow you to move. This bony column is the foundation for all your limbs and muscles to attach to. Think of your spine like a chain on a bike. A chain has 2 joints per link and all of the joints need to be working in unison for proper chain motion. If one joint is dysfunctional or stuck, it affects the chain’s overall function and thus the bike’s overall function. This is a very basic explanation of chiropractic. If one spinal joint is dysfunctional, “locked up”, or subluxated, it decreases proprioception or messages coming from the joint to the brain, which (among other neurological consequences) increases pain signals from that joint. This is the basis for how joint dysfunction of the spine can create pain signals!
This vertebral subluxation, or spinal joint dysfunction can cause joint pain, neck pain, or tension headaches, decreased range of motion, muscle spasms...but remember how I said that migraines are a neurological phenomenon? So does that mean the spine affects neurological function? Your spinal column and your nervous system are intricately connected, and proper spinal joint alignment and biomechanics are necessary for proper neurological function. In other words, yes, damage to the spine can cause neurological issues and imbalances which lead to health problems when not correctly addressed.
Each individual is different, but in a patient suffering with migraines, I often see damage in two spinal areas upon examination and x-ray - the upper cervical area AND/OR the lower cervical or upper thoracic area (top of the neck and bottom of the neck). Both of these areas are commonly damaged with whiplash injuries. The upper cervical area includes the skull or occiput (surrounds the brain) and the first (C1 or atlas) and second (C2 or axis) cervical vertebra. This area has one of the highest concentrations of ‘proprioceptors’ in the body. Proprioceptors send signals to your brain telling it where your body parts are located and what they are doing. The proprioceptors in the neck are responsible for the important tasks of keeping your eyes level at all times while being able to move your head around and still see. If your head moves too fast you get dizzy because those signals go haywire. If you think about it, these are incredibly complex coordinated actions. The upper cervical spine structures surround and protect the lower brainstem, which controls many bodily functions that we have no conscious control over like your heartbeat, respiration, digestion, cranial nerve function and special senses. Any abnormality in the upper cervical area can greatly affect neurological function. Ear infections, sinus issues, vertigo, migraines - these are all issues commonly associated with upper cervical subluxation.
The other area often associated with migraines is the upper thoracic region, specifically the T1 and T2 nerve roots. Your sympathetic nervous system neurologically controls blood flow by directing blood vessel dilation and constriction, or opening and closing. Sympathetic nerve control begins in the thoracic region, with innervation from T1 and T2 (think right below your tee shirt’s neckline) controlling blood flow to the head. Any irritation or interference to the spine and nervous system at T1 or T2 could affect neurological control of blood vessel dilation or constriction in the head, leading to migraine headache.
Pieces of the Puzzle
The most important thing I do for my patients is help them find the right pieces of their puzzle and start putting it together. These three pieces (nutrition, cellular detox, chiropractic) are the biggest and most common solutions but far from our whole integrative approach. We look at vitamin and mineral deficiencies, supplements, emotional stress, weight-loss and metabolism, exercise habits...all the pieces of a personal wellness puzzle. I’ve had patients with severe headaches who we helped uncover that they had serious underlying systemic disease, I’ve helped patients find trigger foods and chemicals, I’ve recommended to have dental work re-examined, and I’ve had patients who we discovered just needed to change their reading glasses, but whatever the cause we have helped hundreds improve their headache symptoms. Whatever pieces are missing from your puzzle, Align Utah can help you find the pieces and start putting the puzzle back together again.