Alternative treatments do help some sufferers, finds Jennifer Zabel.
At age 24, administrative assistant Mary Ellen Crowley got her first migraine — the same year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now, almost a decade later, Crowley has a severe migraine once a week and says without hesitation, “My headaches have changed my life much more than my MS.”
“No one understands what I’m going through. It’s like the most severe toothache in my brain. I can’t function. I’m completely disabled,” says Crowley, who heads a support group in Philadelphia (90% of its members are unable to work because of the severity of their pain). Crowley only recently returned after a two-year hiatus. One man has been on disability for 20 years. Another member is so sensitive to light that she has to wear sunglasses and a visor, even at night, to ward off her next headache.
More than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches, and like Crowley, many are willing to try anything to have one day without pain. Miami-based psychotherapist, Joe West, has treated nearly 3,000 headache patients and acknowledges that there is no magic cure for headaches. To manage pain, he augments traditional Western medicine with what he calls “complementary medicine.” “I don’t like the term ‘alternative medicine’ because it has a negative connotation,” he says. “We’re using research-based, scientifically proven treatments.”
Biofeedback is one of West’s primary tools. The treatment involves teaching patients how to listen to signals from their own bodies to relax tense muscles and to gain control of pain. “In about 12 sessions, a patient can learn to minimize the frequency, intensity and duration of the headache,” says West, who supplements behavioral treatments with a variety of prescription medications (like Zoloft, Imitrex, and Rizatriptan) but warns against excessive use of analgesics, like aspirin or Tylenol. “What you’re taking to prevent a headache can actually end up triggering one, because your body grows dependent on the drug to function normally,” he says.
Leading reflexologist Dwight Byers, of St. Petersburg, FL, agrees. “Pills can mask the real cause of the headache, making effective treatment nearly impossible,” says Byers, who believes reflexology alone can effectively reduce pain. By alternating pressure on various parts of the feet — the reflexes of the feet mirror all of the organs, glands and parts of the body — Byers claims to relieve the headaches of many sufferers, both before and during an attack. “At the very least, reflexology takes the edge off pain,” he says.
Another approach is acupuncture — the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the flow of natural healing energy — but the medical community is still debating its efficacy. Richard Bachrach, a doctor of osteopathy in New York City, has had success, but never treats patients in the middle of a migraine. “Generally, accupuncture will intensify a migraine already in progress,” he says. “But it works wonders in preventing headaches because accupuncture relieves stress.” Indeed, the American Council for Headache Education (ACHE) identifies stress as a leading cause of all types of headaches.
Aromatherapy and Massage
“Controlling stress is key in preventing headaches,” concurs Cheryl McKereghan, Spa Director at Aveda’s trendy SoHo salon and spa. “There’s nothing better than lavender or peppermint oil to reduce neck tension — the result of stress and a common source of headache pain.” McKereghan suggests diluting either oil with a carrier oil (like sweet almond oil or jojoba oil), then inhaling the vapors with a series of deep, cleansing breaths. Or, rub the oil (peppermint may irritate sensitive skin) directly on the temples while massaging the pressure point between the thumb and index finger.