Fighting Migranes

For me, it's like this: I catch a whiff of perfume, or the weather shifts, or I get overtired -- and boom. My fingers and toes start to burn and my vision blurs, while my hearing and sense of smell become painfully sharp. Dizzy and nauseated, I feel myself telescoping inward as the entirety of my consciousness shrinks to a hot dot of agony that takes up residence behind my right eyeball for 72 hours, never more, never less. Migraine.

For many years I kept these episodes to a minimum with a daily dose of magnesium, vitamin B2, and feverfew, the "triple therapy" recommended by many holistic practitioners. I avoided trigger foods and practiced yoga to keep stress in check. On rare occasions, I'd pop an Imitrex, but overall, I was a poster child for natural migraine management.

Then, at age 40, I quit my job, moved across the country, and had a baby -- welcome events, but ones that left me wired and tired 24/7. My migraines grew more frequent and incapacitating, not an acceptable state when you're caring for a baby. I saw several holistic healers but didn't find their suggestions practical. Desperate, I turned to a neurologist, who got out his prescription pad and started writing. When I asked what could be causing my headaches, he said, "Nobody knows. But why do you care? Don't you just want to feel better?"

I did, but nothing worked. The more drugs that failed, the more prescriptions he wrote: new medications, new combinations, higher doses. And I kept taking them, sliding down the slippery slope of allopathic medicine.

Within a year, the drugs had taken a toll. My hair fell out, I gained 15 pounds, and I felt drained of energy. And I was still having headaches. It was madness (and, for me, futile) to treat a chronic condition without exploring its source. As varied as the treatments I'd tried had been -- from narcotics to vitamins -- they had all come at the problem from the outside in. So I resolved to dive back into the natural realm, but to aim deeper this time, with three subtle therapies that offer not merely symptom relief, but an absolute paradigm shift.

Lower Your RPMs
Medically, migraine disease remains something of a mystery, says John Claude Krusz, M.D., medical director of the Dallas-based Anodyne Headache and PainCare. It's best described as "a brain disorder in which there seems to be excessive electrical signaling in the brain, allowing too many painful signals to get through," Krusz says. "We don't have a good understanding as to why it happens."

That means you have people like me, who are hypersensitive to life, working with doctors who are, to some extent, shooting in the dark -- with powerful neurological drugs. Hoping to find a more natural way to reset my nervous system, I booked an appointment with Marty Austin, a craniosacral therapist. An anecdotal favorite among migraineurs, craniosacral therapy targets the central nervous system with subtle manipulations to the cranium and spinal cord.

"The body wants to correct imbalance, but sometimes it needs a nudge in the right direction," said Austin. "With migraine patients, misalignments can compromise the function of the internal jugulars, which drain toxins out of the brain. If you have too many toxins, that's a migraine."

The therapy helps reset the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, called the reticular activating system (RAS), says Roy Desjarlais, vice president of clinical services for the Upledger Institute, the premier training facility for craniosacral work. "It's similar to RPMs in a car," he explains. Imagine that your RAS has a gauge that reads from zero to 10. Ideally, in a state of rest, your RAS is at zero. In migraineurs, he says, the RAS revs too high: When we experience a stressful event, we don't return to zero, but perhaps to a 0.5 instead. If another stressor comes along, we might unwind only to a 2.

"What you see, over time, are people losing flexibility in their nervous system," he says. When this occurs, it takes little to move you into a state of pain. "Your alarm goes off over everything," he says. This is a perfect description of me, if not of everyone living with severe migraine disease.

Craniosacral therapy helps to reset the RAS, and in doing so builds more wiggle room into the nervous system. During my first treatment with Austin, nothing much happened. But in my second treatment, something shifted and opened. I experienced a profound sense of calm, a head-to-toe releasing of pressure. Physically, I'd had a major cranial base release, Austin explained. Internally, I'd felt the borders of tension fall away. I'd felt this before, during meditation retreats or after hours of intensive yoga. It was a gateway experience, and in those moments I saw that true healing -- from the inside out -- was possible.

Recharge Your Battery
The pain of a migraine sucks you dry. The more exhausted you become, the more likely you are to succumb to another headache. One way to stop this cycle is to get more energy. Many studies point to acupuncture's ability to relieve pain. But to recover, what I needed was more qi, according to acupuncturist Efrem Korngold, coauthor of "Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine." He listened to my story -- major career shift, late-life baby, complicated C-section -- and gave it to me straight: "The body's primary source of qi is the kidneys," he said. "We have two kinds of qi, the kind we're born with (inherited qi) and the kind we acquire. It's like you have two batteries to run off of." If you dip too deeply into your inherited qi, which can happen during childbirth, an accident, or an emotional trauma, it can have a destabilizing effect on your life. "You can't find equilibrium, and you don't know why."

The best bet? "Build up energy in that second battery," advised Korngold. Acupuncture can help do this, he said, if it's focused equally on building up the kidney meridian and on restoring the proper flow of qi and blood throughout the body. Used this way, acupuncture can strengthen the system, rather than treat symptoms. But it works best when lifestyle measures are taken, too, he said. Sleep and stress relief, in particular, are critical.

My own acupuncturist, Knoxville-based Prasad Robert Hutter, agreed. If you don't change your lifestyle, "acupuncture is similar to a drug. I needle a point, you feel better, then you revert to the behavior that was causing imbalance," said Hutter. So while I tried acupuncture and found it helped, that alone wouldn't solve my problem. "At some point, you need to start making choices that support your spirit." I'd heard this message before.

Pop the Balloon
When my crisis hit, the holistic healers I saw all told me the same thing: There was probably a message in these migraines. I would have to examine my emotional issues -- anger, in particular -- to break the cycle.

My general response? Go to hell! It smacked of blame-the-victim thinking, and besides, I didn't have time to explore myself; I had an infant to care for now. I needed relief, no spiritual or emotional strings attached.

But, of course, relief never came. Once my son was sleeping through the night, I had more time (and sanity) to explore the notion that there's something to learn from these migraines. "I didn't always think this way, but I've been practicing medicine for 25 years, and it becomes apparent after a while that everything is emotional and stress-related," Manhattan-based physician and certified acupuncturist Doreen Sweeting, M.D., told me. "In the case of migraines, it often has to do with carrying around a deep-seated emotional issue that doesn't really belong to you, some sort of guilt or shame." The pain is a manifestation of these feelings. "The more you need to address it, the louder the body screams." The fact that the drugs had stopped working for me was, to her line of thinking, a good thing. "You'll be forced to find the big secret and process it," she said. "And often you'll see that it's not such a big deal once you stick the pin in the balloon.

"For help in locating my "balloon," I called on L. S. King, a world-class hypnotist who happened to live nearby. She was glad to hear that I wanted to go beyond relaxation techniques for in-the-moment pain relief. "Hypnosis is at its most useful in helping you see your internal landscape more clearly," she said. "It can help you get down to the underlying cause, whether emotional or physical. On some level, you might already know what it is."

During our 90-minute session, I learned a lot. As Sweeting predicted, I carry around some shame from childhood, and it really isn't mine to carry. More than that, I realized I have a headache every time I make a decision that's not in alignment with my higher self. Literally, whenever I do or say or eat or drink or write something that leads me away from who I really am (or want to be), I suffer. My anger, it turns out, is directed at myself.

I can't claim to be cured; I'm still having migraines. But I'm having fewer, and I've begun to view them in a new way: as signposts for right living, and as an invitation to treat myself, and the world around me, with care and love. I see my attempts to heal less as a struggle and more as a journey. And isn't that what natural healing is all about?

Text by Hillari Dowdle

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