Can you “will away” migraine pain? Recent work conducted at the Seattle Children’s Hospital suggests that it might be possible for some patients. That’s not to say migraine pain isn’t real. Experts agree that it is. But they are also coming to see that some non-pharmaceutical solutions to pain relief can be very effective.
Pain is a pain, of course, but it also serves a positive purpose in life. When your body’s pain system is working properly, it sends a pain signal to alert you that there is danger present (like when you accidentally put your hand on a proverbial hot burner). That way, you can move your hand to prevent a more severe injury. So pain, in some senses, is good. When it is definitely no good is when the pain system is not working right and sends pain signals in situations where danger may not be present. Migraine is one throbbing example of this phenomena.
Decades ago, doctors often diagnosed patients with migraine symptoms as neurotic and dismissed their complaints as psychiatric in nature. In more recent years, researchers reached the conclusion that dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head were the main source of the migraine pain. Today, however, we have made advances in technology that help us understand better how the brain works. The consensus now is that migraine is a disorder involving nerve pathways and brain chemicals, with genetics involved in the picture as well, that results in a “false danger” pain message being sent to the body.
“Migraine is a neurobiological disorder involving both neurological and vascular changes in the brain during an attack,” concludes Susan Broner, MD, medical director of the Manhattan Headache Center in New York City. “People with a genetic predisposition have a reduced threshold for the activation of the brain’s ‘pain centers’ and become hypersensitive to stimuli that cause pain. These set off a wave of nerve cell activity and neurotransmitter release that activates blood vessel inflammation, feeding pain structures deep in the brain.”
Today, there are three principle approaches to treatment of migraine:
- Acute treatment: uses drugs to relieve the symptoms of attacks when they occur.
- Preventive treatment: uses drugs taken daily to reduce the number of attacks and lessen the intensity of pain.
- Complementary treatments: can help avoid the triggering or provocation of attacks.
These treatments, which does not use drugs, include lifestyle changes, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, exercise, and proper rest and diet.
Some of the most interesting work being done today on relieving migraine pain is in the area of complementary treatments. It has been found that techniques such as massage, tai chi and yoga can deliver real benefits. Massage can ease neck and shoulder spasms. Tai chi increases body awareness, making it easier to detect and treat an oncoming headache. And yoga that focuses on mindfulness, such as hatha and restorative yoga, may help as well.
Dr. Emily Law at the Seattle Children’s Hospital Pain Clinic noticed that adults can verbalize migraine symptoms easily, but they are more difficult to detect in children, even though many are afflicted with migraine symptoms. Dr. Law, a psychologist, tried something innovative to help her young patients deal with chronic migraine pain: behavioral therapy in lieu of drugs as a complementary treatment.
Since her patients’ brains were misfiring pain signals, Dr. Law applied cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback to chronic migraine sufferers.
“If you went home and curled up in a ball for six hours every time you got a migraine, you’re training your body to do that and your pain will just get worse,” one of her young patients explained. “If you train your body to get into a different habit — saying ‘oh, hey, migraines aren’t that bad,’ you can go to school. You can go for a walk. You can play sports. You can do anything. Your brain will start to build up a wall for migraines.”
And so Law’s ideas have seen some very positive outcomes for her patients suffering from chronic migraine pain. While her focus is on children, she believes this type of therapy can be useful for adults with migraines, too. At Migraine Treatment Centers of America, we’re inclined to agree. As advocates for individuals who suffer from chronic, debilitating migraine pain, we’re committed to providing patients with access to the world’s most renowned pain specialists and state-of-the-art treatments designed to reduce and eliminate pain.
Our consortium of world-class partner physicians is comprised of board-certified specialists in interventional pain management. They utilize technologically advanced treatments and minimally invasive procedures — including the revolutionary Omega™ migraine procedure — to provide compassionate, individualized care designed to ease the suffering caused by debilitating migraine pain.
And ideas like Dr.Law’s are ones we embrace enthusiastically if they are effective in helping our patients reduce migraine pain.
1. O’Brien, Colleen and Colleen O. ‘Seattle Children’s Hospital Doctor’s New Migraine Trick: Will Them Away’. February 4, 2016. Accessed March 22, 2016. http://mynorthwest.com/11/2906192/Seattle-Childrens-Hospital-doctors-new-migraine-trick-Will-them-away.