The most important step in treating headaches, especially migraines, is getting an accurate diagnosis. There are contributing factors – including stress, hormone problems, sinus issues, muscle strain and neck arthritis issues – and having a migraine with aura can have long-term implications in your health.
Once you have an accurate diagnosis, there are a variety of treatments beyond medications. In fact, overuse of certain medications can actually make certain headaches worse. Looking beyond prescriptions, there are holistic options that show great promise.
In the realm of diet, food additives seem to be the biggest triggers. For some, a gluten elimination diet may provide answers. Surprisingly, medical evidence is also showing that for some people, skipping meals or fasting may prove to be another trigger, especially for those sensitive to sugar. On the positive side, there are some nutrients that seem to be critical to preventing migraines. Magnesium is by the far the most important. It may be worth getting your levels checked, because there is a wide range of dosing and not all magnesium supplements have the same effects on the body. There are other nutrients that can be helpful as well, and a consultation from a natural health care practitioner can be invaluable in targeting the diet and nutrients best for you.
There are a variety of herbals that show promise in migraines. Two herbals that have been recognized by the American Academy of Neurology are butterbur and feverfew. Butterbur has the most impressive studies behind it. The correct dosage, however, can vary widely from person to person. Butterbur also contains a substance, a pyrollizidine alkaloid, that can be toxic to the liver and cause cancer; therefore, be sure any product you buy guarantees the removal of these alkaloids. Feverfew may not be as effective as butterbur, but it is safe and well tolerated. Feverfew seems to work well when combined with ginger, but mouth ulcers and withdrawal headaches can occur if abruptly stopped.
There is one treatment that has amazing medical evidence, very little downside, and does not require taking a pill: acupuncture. In the medical community, it has the highest levels of studies behind its effectiveness both in helping with an acute migraine and with preventing it from occurring. One healing theory is that acupuncture calms the nerves in the brain and body from a biochemical standpoint. Despite what most have experienced in Western medicine, the needles used are very thin, sterile needles that are hardly noticeable during a treatment. Acupuncture treatment is often very calming and only lasts about 35 to 45 minutes.
The good news for headache and migraine sufferers is that there are a plethora of holistic options available to help. Consulting a local integrative physician is a great way to understand what options are best for you. Those who are interested in exploring a more holistic, healing option or trying acupuncture are welcome to attend a neck pain and headache workshop hosted by Balanced Physician Care and River City Physical Therapy on June 29.
Dr. Sharyl Truty, MD is an integrative/functional medicine & acupuncture physician, board certified in family & sports medicine, and owner of Balanced Physician Care in Ponte Vedra Beach.