Migraine headaches are one of the most common causes of emergency room visits for women between the ages of 18 and 45. As a neurologist and migraine sufferer, I know statistics don’t mean anything when a headache takes over our lives and causes lost time at work or with our loved ones.
If an individual has two or more migraine headaches per month, they are classified as having chronic migraine headache disorder and may benefit from taking preventative measures. These preventative treatments are distinctly different from the therapies that should be used during an acute migraine attack.
The preventative treatment traditionally recommended by physicians is typified by a sole reliance on prescription medications. While effective, these drugs have the potential to cause undesirable side effects such as weight gain, memory impairment, and sedation.
As I traveled around the world learning yoga and meditation techniques, I was always seeking migraine remedies for my patients and myself. In a marketplace full of claims for migraine cures that range from fresh juices to fad diets, what has really been tested and scientifically proven to work?
The following natural and complementary medical therapies have been scientifically proven in medical studies to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches when used appropriately on a regular basis.
Butterbur is an herb (botanical name Petasites hybridus). According to the published, evidence-based guidelines update by the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society, strong evidence supports its use in the prevention of migraine headaches. Some butterbur preparations do contain chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can damage the liver and cause other serious harm. Only butterbur products that are certified and labeled “PA-free” should be used.
Migraine patients have presented with lower serum magnesium levels compared to normal control groups of the same age without migraine headaches. Intravenous magnesium therapy has been beneficial in the treatment of acute migraine headaches, but the use of oral magnesium alone to prevent migraine headaches has had mixed results. It has been shown to be potentially effective in one study using a combination of magnesium, feverfew, and riboflavin. There is however, evidence that magnesium is effective in preventing migraine headaches associated with menstrual cycles and premenstrual syndrome.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.) is a shrub with daisy-like flowers. The dried leaves - and sometimes the flowers and stems - are used to make supplements. Multiple studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing the number of migraine headaches per month.
Additional comprehensive studies showed that it is even more effective when combined with other natural supplements (magnesium and riboflavin) or when it is combined with acupuncture.
Ginger root has a long-standing history of therapeutic uses in both Ayurvedic medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine models. In migraine headaches it can play a dual role, in both prevention and acute treatment. For prevention, it has a reported anti-inflammatory effect, but unfortunately little or no medical data to support its use. For treatment of acute migraine headaches, ginger was found to be effective when combined with feverfew and administered under the tongue.
There is an abundance of medical literature supporting the use of acupuncture for pain, and this includes studies about preventing migraine headaches.
In a head-to-head trial against the prescription medication topiramate, acupuncture showed equal efficacy in reduction of number of migraine headaches per month.
As a mind-body medicine physician and certified yoga instructor, I have seen first-hand how both my own migraine headaches and those of clients have reduced with regular practice. Numerous medical studies have shown that in controlled studies, patients practicing yoga saw a reduction in migraine headaches compared to those headache patients who were not enrolled in yoga therapy.
In the U.S., numerous yoga franchises exist, but there's no study proving one method of yoga is more beneficial in headache reduction than any other. All of the published medical studies conclude that the combination of mindful breathing in yoga (pranayama) with flow sequences of physical postures (asanas) are what alter the brain’s response to stress and therefore create a reduction in pain.
7. Mindfulness meditation
Advances in functional neuroimaging of the brain show structural and functional changes in the brain with meditation. People who have a regular meditation practice have a higher pain threshold, and one pilot study indicates that mindfulness meditation can reduce duration and disability caused by migraine headaches.