Can migraines be controlled? In most cases, YES! The pain of migraines is so horrible that, to many, it seems almost impossible to believe that they are controllable. How could something so painful be controlled simply by bringing the nervous system back into balance... back to “homeostasis”?
To understand how it is possible to control your headaches, let me explain a bit about the physiology of migraine headaches and muscle tension headaches. In working with hundreds of sufferers over the years, I have found that all migraineurs have high muscle tension and, therefore, both issues must be addressed. Migraines have often been called “vascular” headaches. In other words, they have to do with the blood flow through the arteries. When the arteries over-dilate (open up too much), after having been constricted, the blood goes throbbing to the eyes and brain, causing these debilitating headaches. Muscle tension headaches, on the other hand, are caused by the muscles in the shoulders, neck, head, and face, tightening up, thereby causing the pain of these headaches.
Both types of headaches can be brought under control by controlling one's autonomic (or “automatic”) nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that is usually not consciously controlled. For example, you do not usually consciously control your heart rate, but it you had a fast heart rate, or an irregular heart rate, I could teach you how to control that. I simply attach instruments to your body to measure certain body functions, and, with the feedback on the computer, I would coach you to control the readings. You are getting biological feedback, or “biofeedback” for short, on the screen.
Other things that normally are not consciously controlled include respiration, circulation, blood pressure, brain waves, muscle tension, digestion, sweat gland activity, and much more. Learning how to control the inner functionings of the body, and mind, is enormously empowering to people. People learn how to create health and well-being in their bodies, and these are skills they use, and benefit from, for the rest of their lives. It is so much fun to do!
You have likely heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is when the body goes into high gear after confronted with a real, or perceived, threat or danger. The body has this mechanism to protect itself. All animals have this. Centuries ago our dangers were more physical. We had to protect ourselves from lions, bears and other tribes. Adrenaline would go into the blood stream and give us super strength. This is a great thing in times of emergencies. The problem, nowadays, is that most people run on adrenaline way too much. Stress has become a global epidemic. And, most of our stressors now are psychological stressors so the tension does not get released from the body by running or fleeing. It is often held in.
Back to migraines! There are two things that happen in the body during the fight or flight response that contribute to migraines. First, all animals (including human animals) have an unconscious instinct to protect the throat when they perceive danger or stress. This is because animals are usually attacked at the throat. So, human animals tighten in the neck and shoulders first when they experience stress. This excess muscle tension can create muscle tension headaches and, additionally, contributes to the migraines by crimping the arteries.
Another thing that happens, to people who get migraines, is that their arteries constrict when they experience stress. The body unconsciously does this because if you were to be attacked, or cut, you would bleed less if the arteries were constricted. It is, again, the fight or flight response kicking in. Interestingly, the migraine does not occur when the person is under stress. It happens after the stress is over (usually). This is why the migraine may come on in the middle of the night, the first day of the weekend, or at the beginning of vacation. So, the muscle tension headaches occur when the person is under stress and the migraines occur when the person begins to relax.
People with migraines tend to have cold hands and feet. I teach them how to consciously warm their hands and feet; thereby opening, or dilating, their arteries. They need to keep their arteries dilated in order to prevent the migraines from occurring. I simply get a temperature reading on the surface of their skin. If their arteries are dilated I will see a reading of 93 degrees, or higher, on the surface. I train them how to keep their arteries dilated in order to prevent the migraines from occurring. Often when I start sessions with someone, their surface skin temperature will be in the low 80's. That is a lot of constriction!
Most of the people I work with are on a lot of medications when they first come. The triptans, such as Imitrex or Maxalt, cause the arteries to constrict. These medications are taken as the migraine is coming on to slow it down. Sometimes people crave caffeine when they feel a migraine coming on, for the same reason. The problem, then, is that rebound headaches can occur. In other words, the medications will constrict the arteries, giving temporary relief, but then when the arteries open up as the medication wears off, another migraine often occurs. Then the headaches get worse and worse as time goes on. Sometimes people get to the point where they have chronic daily headaches from medication overuse. The best thing is to learn how to control your nervous system as soon as possible so you don't get into this trap. Think of the medications as being a temporary solution while you take control.
When working with migraine sufferers, I first teach them some general skills for bringing their nervous system into balance (such as proper breathing, deep relaxation of the body and mind, imagery). The Wild Divine is, of course, a wonderful way for patients to practice general biofeedback skills at home. Then, I teach them to bring certain muscles to “normal tension”. Every muscle has a normal level of tension that it should be at and it is measured in microvolts. I teach my patients how to bring their shoulder, neck, forehead, and sometimes the jaw muscles, to normal tension. Then, I teach them how to use their mind to help eliminate stress from their nervous system. Since every thought creates both a chemical change in the body and an electrical change in the nervous system, working with the mind is critical. Finally, I end the training with teaching them to dilate their arteries.
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