Migraine headaches are a debilitating condition that affect up to 20% of the population, per Harvard Medical School. They feature:
- throbbing head pain
- loss of appetite
- prolonged periods of exhaustion
Most migraines last 4-12 hours, although they can cripple some for much longer! Can you imagine losing a whole day because of a headache and nausea when you need to watch your child or work on a project? In addition, migraine headaches are responsible for between $5.6 and $17.2 billion annually in lost work productivity, hospital bills, medications and more! These statistics are the reason scientists conduct so much research on migraines. So, what do we know about this debilitating condition?
What causes a migraine headache?
Despite years of research, scientists do not know exactly why migraines occur. However, there does seem to be a consensus on what contributes to the pain aspect of a migraine. Scientists believe that swelling of blood vessels and irritation of nerves that surround the brain are responsible for the discomfort people experience. However, this isn’t necessarily the direct cause of the problem. Rather, this is secondary to an initiating event. What might be the underlying cause then? We need to evaluate what might irritate the nerves around the brain or cause blood vessels to swell in order to answer this.
What might irritate the nerves of the brain and cause blood vessels to swell?
One of the main contributing factors appears to be a misalignment of the top bone of your spine – the atlas. If you review the image to the right from Harvard Medical School, you will see that an abnormally aligned spinal bone can pressure blood vessels and irritate nerves. How does this happen? There are a lot of blood vessels and nerves in the area of your atlas bone (image 2 below). If, for example, the bone gets stuck in a rotated position, it will disfigure the nerves and kink the blood vessels. The issue is magnified because the nerves and blood vessels interact with each other.
What do the nerves and blood vessels do?
Nerves – The nerves in your upper neck, and throughout your body, control the diameter of blood vessels. Your nerves are like the electric wiring in your house, and are susceptible to damage. If there is an obstruction in the electric system of your house, your lights may flicker or your outlets may not work. If a nerve in your body is disfigured, it may send altered electric messages to your blood vessels. This will affect the size of the blood vessel diameter. Imagine trying to water your entire garden through a straw rather than a normal size garden hose. The change in diameter adds to the difficulty of the job.
Blood vessels – There are many blood vessels in your upper neck as well. They can become kinked by an abnormal spinal bone position. When this happens, blood going to and from the brain may slow. If the circulation to your brain is affected, the vessels in your brain are forced to expand. They do this in an attempt to allow more blood flow in – which your brain constantly needs. This can contribute to the terrible pain experienced with a migraine headache!
As you can see, when the nerves and blood vessels are disfigured, it creates a situation where the problem becomes exponentially worse. This is because the nerves alter the blood vessel size in addition to the direct “kinking” of your vessels as a result of the misaligned bone! This is a compounding problem.
What are the options for care?
According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment options include:
- Pain relieving medication
- Preventative medication
- Alternative therapy
Medication may be effective, but it does not address a potential underlying cause. Rather, it acts more like a bandaid. A better solution may be to address any structural abnormalities of the spine.
Who treats structural abnormalities of the spine?
One profession that addresses structural issues of the body are surgeons. The procedure tends to focus on decompression of the stressed area. However, their methods are invasive and are a better option after conservative treatment. Who conservatively addresses structural issues of the spine? Chiropractors that focus on structural correction of the spine address structural problems. Through a custom plan of care dependent on objective exam findings, many cases of abnormal alignment resolve.
In conclusion, migraines are a huge headache for a large percentage of the American population. They can debilitate an individual for hours on end, and may cost the public close to $20 billion annually. We don’t know the direct cause yet, but it seems to involve irritated nerves and altered blood vessels in the upper neck. Interestingly, structural abnormalities of the spine are capable of affecting both. Could this be a major contributor to migraines? Further research is necessary, but it is a promising lead.