Massage Therapy: Alternative Treatment for Migraine Headaches?

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Migraines, the third most common illness worldwide, affect 1 in every 4 American households, accounting for over 1 million emergency room visits each year. More than 1 billion people across the globe struggle with migraines. Of those who experience migraines, 90% experience migraines so debilitating that they are unable to work during their episodes.

The Difference between Migraines and Headaches

Because sinus headaches and migraines have similar symptoms, it’s easy to confuse the two. In fact, many people who think they have recurring sinus headaches but haven’t yet consulted with a doctor are in fact nearly always (90% of the time) experiencing migraines.

Migraine symptoms, which include forehead pain and pressure, facial pressure near the sinuses, and a runny or stuffy nose, mimic those occurring with sinus headaches. However, sinus headaches cause certain symptoms that migraines don’t, such as fever, nasal pus, and bad breath.

Those experiencing either set of symptoms may find it helpful to speak to a physician. A professional diagnosis can take the guesswork out of migraines and lead to targeted relief.

Causes, Triggers, and Warning Signs

Those with a family history of migraines are more likely to get them, especially during their 30s. Women have a 300% higher chance of getting migraines, and this is believed to be the result of hormonal changes such as such as estrogen fluctuations.

Migraines often occur before or during a menstrual period, when estrogen naturally drops. Pregnant or menopausal individuals may experience migraines as a result of changing hormone levels. People who get migraines and are receiving hormone replacement therapies or taking oral contraceptives may experience migraines that are worse than usual—though they may also notice a reduction in symptoms.

People who take vasodilators (like nitroglycerin, for example) can also experience migraines that are worse than usual. Many individuals find that weather/humidity changes and physical exercise (including sex) trigger their migraines. Work and family stress, changes in sleep patterns (including jet lag), and strong scents trigger migraines in many individuals. Some people who experience migraines find that caffeine and alcohol, especially wine, trigger headaches. Other triggers may include processed and salty foods and food additives like aspartame and MSG.

People with migraines often experience changes in mood that can range widely, from euphoria to depression. People may also report thirst, food cravings, constipation, and an increased need to urinate as predecessors to migraines. They may feel stiffness in their necks and experience frequent bouts of yawning.

Another symptom sometimes preceding or accompanying migraines is an aura—a flash of light, shapes, or bright spots, or temporary loss of vision. Numbness or weakness on one side of the body, trouble speaking, auditory hallucinations, and spasms may also occur.

Is Massage Therapy a Good Alternative to Migraine Medication?

While migraine symptoms are usually treated with medication, some individuals do not respond well to migraine medication or experience side effects or other concerns that lead them to avoid pharmacological treatment. Massage is one potential alternative treatment available to help treat migraine symptoms.

Though further research is still needed, one study showed favorable results for migraine sufferers who participated in a trial where they received weekly massage. These individuals experienced less frequent migraines and slept better after receiving massage therapy.

Massage for medical conditions generally falls into one of two categories.

  • Massage as a complementary therapy: Many physicians recommend massage therapists to patients who want to address stress, anxiety, insomnia, flexibility, and pain issues, among other concerns, without additional drugs/surgery. These doctors value massage therapy as an “add-on” treatment with few to no side effects that can be beneficial to nearly any person, from preterm babies to elderly patients.
  • Massage as an alternative treatment: A growing number of doctors are beginning to recognize massage therapy as a medical treatment in its own right. For example, the American College of Physicians now recommends massage therapy as a first-line treatment for lower back pain. This organization—and many practicing physicians—recommend massage as an alternative to opioid painkillers and pharmaceutical sleep aids, which have been shown to cause any number of potentially harmful side effects in some individuals.

When reviewing the use of massage therapy as an alternative to pharmaceuticals, a team from Norway’s Akershus University Hospital found treatments like massage therapy, chiropractic spinal manipulation, and physiotherapy to potentially be just as effective as drugs for migraine relief. They studied the effects of medications like topiramate (an anti-seizure drug) and propranolol (a beta-blocker used for cardiac patients) on migraine patients and highlighted the importance of non-pharmacological interventions.

Can Massage Prevent Stress that Triggers Migraines?

A research team at New Zealand’s University of Auckland Department of Psychology conducted a 13-week study on people with migraine headaches (some of whom received massage therapy). This team observed their study participants’ cortisol levels, heart rates, and anxiety levels before and after massage therapy sessions.

Cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, signals the body to release more sugars in times of stress to provide quick energy for fight-or-flight reactions. It tells the brain to use more sugars in order to think fast and react to danger and gets the body ready to heal itself from injuries. Cortisol can save lives in crisis situations, but it can also have a negative impact on everyday life.

The research team found that people who received massage therapy slept better and had fewer migraines than those who didn’t get this treatment. They also noticed reductions in migraine patients’ cortisol levels, anxiety levels, and heart rates after massage therapy. Thus, massage therapy shows promise as a treatment for migraine headaches.

Can Massage Treat Insomnia that Triggers Migraines?

A study on sleep interventions for a group of 69 men in critical care for heart problems found that patients who received massage slept an average of 1 hour longer per night than those who received relaxation tapes or standard care.

Another research team studied a group of 57 women with breast cancer. The study participants who received massage therapy as a complementary treatment to standard medical care reported better quality of sleep than those who only received standard treatments. These scholars pointed out massage therapy’s usefulness for promoting health and helping patients sleep better without drugs.

To enjoy greater pain relief and better sleep, consider asking your doctor if massage therapy is the right complementary or alternative migraine treatment for you.


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