The Bad News: An overactive nervous system can lead to chronic migraines.
The Good News: Acupuncture coupled with diet and lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines.
Getting (Re)Acquainted with the ANS
The functioning of all of our internal organs is regulated by an involuntary nervous system known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS has two primary divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating the “fight or flight” response characteristically engaged in stressful situations. The parasympathetic system opposes this response by activating the restful state and causing the relaxation response. Prolonged periods of stress can induce a chronic state of hyper-sympathetic activity. Worse, the parasympathetic response can become suppressed over time, as the body’s state of chronic stress becomes the ‘new normal.’
Such a prolonged state of stress can lead to neck and upper back rigidity and stiffness, heaviness behind the eyes, and tension headaches, as well as anxiety, irritability, and digestive problems such as bloating and constipation.
And this is where headache pain comes in.
Constriction… A Pain in the Head
During a chronically sympathetic-dominant state, constriction of the blood vessels (vasoconstriction) minimizes circulation – including circulation to the brain. The internal branch of the carotid artery passes through an opening in the skull and becomes a major source of blood for the brain.
When vasoconstriction becomes excessive, the body responds by releasing specific neurotransmitters, sometimes referred to as neurokinins, causing “rebound dilation” in the constricted arteries – a natural defense mechanism our bodies use to compensate for blood deprivation. Rebound dilation in turn produces a state of over-dilation in the affected segments of the arteries.
These arteries are wrapped with pain receptors. Over-dilation causes these receptors to be stretched, resulting in the intense pain and throbbing of a migraine. The pain is localized because of the limited area of over-dilation, while the throbbing results because each time the heart pumps blood into the artery, the artery expands. When the heart rests, the artery partially constricts which relieves the pain.
“Throbbing” is the feeling you get every time the heart pumps blood into the artery.
Migraines are a Healing Reaction
Because rebound dilation, as described above, occurs as a natural response to the deprivation of blood to the brain, scientists have begun to view migraines as a part of the healing process. The theory explains many unique characteristics of migraine attacks, which often develop when one is relieved from a situation of prolonged stress – such as on weekends, the first day of vacation, following a relaxing dinner at the end of a stressful day, or after sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Physiologically, this is when the body shifts from an increased sympathetic state to a rebound parasympathetic elevation state.
Many sufferers experience some of their most intense migraines following massage treatment. This is not surprising considering that massage and other natural therapies, including acupuncture, trigger the healing reaction by eliciting a relaxation response and enhancing circulation.
Acupuncture for Migraine Relief
Since the pain of a migraine may be associated with the dilation of blood vessels in the head, increasing circulation in this area can worsen the patient’s symptoms. To prevent dilating the blood vessels of the head, migraine treatment avoids points in the head, neck and upper body. Instead, points are selected exclusively in the lower body. The entire treatment is often performed with the patient sitting upright rather than in a prone position. This also minimizes dilation of the blood vessels during acupuncture.
While the relaxation response is associated with acupuncture and other natural therapies, acupuncture remains an excellent treatment option when performed by a qualified acupuncturist.
Acupuncture for Migraine Prevention
Emotional stress is a well-known trigger for migraines.
People living in a fast-paced city like New York tend to have imbalanced autonomic nervous systems.
The parasympathetic (relaxed state) branch is inhibited, and the sympathetic branch (stressed state) is activated. This type of imbalance may be tied to other health conditions such as heart disease, insomnia, hypertension and premenstrual syndrome.
The acupuncture techniques we use help to prevent migraines by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing muscle tension. As mentioned earlier, acupuncture points for this technique are usually chosen on the forearms and lower legs.
Acupuncture: More than Migraine Relief
Scientific research supports these actions on the body, showing acupuncture treatment:
- Activates the opioid systems: Research has found that several types of pain-reducing opioids may be released into the central nervous system during acupuncture.
- Changes brain chemistry: Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by altering the way in which neurotransmitters and neurohormones are released. Acupuncture has also been documented to affect sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes involved in regulating blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature. Modulation of subcortical structures of the brain may be an important mechanism by which acupuncture exerts its complex multisystem effects.
- Changes blood flow: Acupuncture and Oriental medicine affects the circulation of blood to the affected area, which helps to remove pain-causing chemicals and restore normal function.
So, when you get acupuncture to relieve and prevent migraines, you’re getting the full body treatment.
Diet & Lifestyle for Migraine Prevention
At New York AcuHealth Acupuncture, we recommend the following important lifestyle changes to reduce the incidence of migraines:
- Sleep adequately (7-8 hours per day)
- Avoid physical or mental fatigue
- Avoid alcohol (especially red wine)
- Avoid caffeine
- Eliminate foods that trigger migraines: dairy, chocolate, spices, wheat and corn
- Avoid any triggers that cause your headaches
Because increased muscle tension in the neck and upper back is common in people with migraines, reducing this tension is an integral part of preventing migraines. Self-care practices such as yoga and meditation can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks.