There is a tendency to label any headache that is severe as a migraine. Migraines are typically characterized by a throbbing pain on one side of the head. There are a number of types of migraines but for the purpose of this article we are not going to worry if your headaches are classical migraine, common migraine or not really a migraine.
In the end it doesn’t matter much if you can find relief!
Some of the common symptoms of migraines include:
- An increased sensitivity to light and sound and odors
While there are a number of different types of migraines, there are two that are the most common:
- Classic Migraine: there is an aura that includes visual disturbances and other neurological symptoms that appear 10 to 60 minutes before the onset of the actual headache. An increased sensitivity to light and sound also often precedes the onset of the headache.
- Common Migraine: has no aura and is the more common type of migraine. The headache pain comes on without warning and is experienced on one side of the head along with nausea, confusion, increased sensitivity to light and sound, and blurred vision.
Who are the Common Victims of Migraines?
Migraines can affect anyone from children to adults but women are 3 times more likely to suffer from migraines than men. For many women the migraines seem related to hormonal changes with the menstrual cycle.
Causes of Migraines
According to traditional medicine the exact cause of migraines is unknown. It is believed that possible abnormal brain activity impacts nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain. But, that’s a theory that isn’t going to benefit you much.
What is known is that stress is a trigger for 70% of individuals suffering from migraines and that high levels of stress have been identified in migraine patients, particularly those suffering from daily migraines.
This gives us a doorway into exploring how chiropractic might be of help to migraine sufferers. Let’s explore stress and its relationship to the nervous system.
Stress, the Nervous System, and Migraines
The Nervous System is responsible for the coordination of all body functions from breathing to heart rate to digestion, sleep and so much more.
The portion of the nervous system that controls all those functions is the Autonomic Nervous System and it has 2 divisions.
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) : commonly called the “fight or flight” system. The SNS responds to any stimulus that it perceives as a possible threat to your survival. While the threats to survival are few and far between the triggers that the nervous system interprets as a threat are common.
When activated the SNS mobilizes the resources of the body for survival by:
- Increasing heart rate and blood pressure
- Increasing muscle tension
- Directing blood to the muscles, arms, and legs
- Decreasing digestion
- Impairing sleep
Chronic overactivation of the SNS is involved in almost every chronic health issue and migraines are no exceptions. Multiple scientific papers describe migraines as a chronic sympathetic nervous system disorder.
Parasympathetic Nervous System or Vagus Nerve: the Vagus nerve is often referred to as the “rest and digest” system. A healthy Vagus Nerve function is associated with everything you would consider critical to health:
- Slower heart rate and blood pressure
- Healthy digestion
- Restorative sleep
- Healthy immune response
- Lowered inflammation
- Rest, relaxation, recovery
Modern life is full of relentless triggers that activate the Sympathetic Nervous System. We all have certain inherent weaknesses or predispositions. With overactivity of the Sympathetic System some of us develop digestion issues like acid reflux, ulcer or inflammatory bowel disease. Others develop high blood pressure and some of us are more prone to migraines.
The longer the Sympathetic System is overactive the more it suppresses the activity of the Vagus Nerve.
3 Ways Chiropractic Can Help Migraines
Let’s start by looking at the purpose of chiropractic. Most people understandably think chiropractors are back doctors since we work with the spine. As a chiropractor I’m much more a nervous system doctor than I am a back doctor. The goal of chiropractic is to:
- Bring the body back to a state of balance
- Remove interference, tension, and irritation from the nervous system
Here are 3 ways that chiropractic is likely to help migraines!
#1: Restore motion to the Occiput / Atlas: The very top of the neck where the base of the skull or occiput sits on the top bone of the neck (atlas) is critical. The head weighs about 11 lbs and any imbalance in this area adds significant stress to the upper neck. In the upper neck there are very small muscles attaching the top 2 vertebrae to the occiput and imbalances will cause spasm of these muscles and can initiate headache.
#2: Restore Motion and Balance to C1-2-3: The top of the neck is also home to the brain stem which is where the Autonomic Nervous System resides. Misalignment and restriction there can put pressure on the Vagus Nerve which passes right in front of C1. This is also a critical area for the arteries that pass from the neck into the brain.
#3: Activate the Vagus Nerve: With any long standing overactivation of the Sympathetic System the Vagus Nerve gets suppressed. It is rarely enough to remove interference to the Vagus Nerve. Like a muscle that hasn’t been used for a long time the Vagus Nerve needs to be exercised to bring it’s activity back up.
For many sufferers of migraines the Autonomic Nervous System imbalance started in childhood and this chronic imbalance must be corrected by simple daily intentional Vagus Nerve activation. There are a number of ways to do this and the more variety the better. In my practice conscious breathwork is the most powerful and easily implemented practice.
Migraines like all other headaches are a sign of imbalance and nerve interference. Even if your migraines are triggered by a certain food my experience is that once the upper neck is balanced there is a significant reduction in frequency or severity, or resolution of migraines.
Even if you are convinced that your migraines are triggered by your hormonal cycle, chiropractic can help. Remember that the nervous system is the master control and coordination system. Removing nervous system interference frequently helps balance hormonal cycles.
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