If you’ve ever suffered or had someone you care about suffer from a migraine headache you know just how awful they are. Understanding what a migraine headache is and it’s causes is the first step in knowing what can help treat them. Migraine headaches are different then other headaches in that the source of the migraine comes from the cranial nerves.
These are the 12 nerves that originate from the brain. These nerves are networked so that if one or them hurts all of the cranial nerves can be effected. Its kind of like at my house when my 3 year old starts to cry about something my 1 year old will often start to cry as well for no other reason then her sister is crying.
The migraine headaches are caused by “triggers”. A trigger is anything that causes one of the 12 cranial nerves to “hurt”. Once a cranial nerve is telling the brain that it is not happy a number of things begin to happen.
First is what is called a prodrome. A prodrome is a collection of symptoms that occur before the headache in about half of the people who get migraines. The prodrome can occur hours or days before the headache starts. The symptoms can be altered mood, irritability, depression or euphoria, fatigue, yawning, excessive sleepiness, craving for certain food (e.g. chocolate), stiff muscles (especially in the neck), hot ears, constipation or diarrhea, increased urination, and other visceral symptoms.
Next in about 25% of the people who get migraines is a visual disturbance called an aura. To see what this looks like click on the LINK HERE. The migraine headaches usually begins about an hour after the aura ends.
The pain associated with a migraine is typically on one side of the head, throbbing, and very intense. Most migraine suffers experience nausea, some experience blurred vision, delirium, nasal stuffiness, diarrhea, polyuria, pallor, or sweating. Typically the pain is made worse by activity, light, noise and certain smells. The pain typically can last 3 hours to 3 days.
I wrote earlier that once one cranial nerve is painful then others can be effected. In all stages of the migraine what we are seeing is this phenomena where the network of cranial nerves is involved. The cranial nerves go to your eyes, ears, stomach, face, neck, heart, lungs and the GI tract. Which symptoms a migraine sufferer experiences is dependent upon which cranial nerves are involved.
All cranial nerves start from a nucli. Most of the cranial nerve nucli are located in the brain stem as this photo shows:
The brainstem is in the base of the brain and extends into the upper half of the neck. This is very important to understand because the most migraine triggers start as a result of a nucli getting irritated. The most common way in my experience that these nucli get irritated is when the upper cervical spine is not working right and it puts pressure on the brainstem. This pressure is what often triggers the nucli to get irritated and then causes the migraine. If the trigger is not associated with the function of the neck then it could be a certain smell, food or type of activity. The important thing if at all possible is to figure out the triggers and eliminate them.
In my experience the majority of migraine sufferers respond very well to good chiropractic care. The key is prevention. If a patient comes into my office already in the pain phase of the migraine then the effect of my care is limited. However if the patient can make it in during the prodrome or the aura the treatment can stop the migraine. I recommend that my patients with a history of migraines keep their neck in good shape to prevent the whole process rather then waiting until trouble comes before seeking care.
I hope that helps. Migraines are awful. I do not have all the answers about the cure for all migraines. However I have learned a few things. If this article raises other questions feel free to let me know. Chances are there are others who are thinking the same thing.