Migraine and Tension Headache Relief Using Neurofeedback
By Dr. Clare Albright
Today, medical experts estimate that more than 45 million people in the United States alone deal with headaches on a regular basis. If you suffer regularly with tension or migraine headaches, then you know all too well how debilitating they can be. In severe cases, both types of headaches can actually prevent a person from working, going to school, and living a normal life. If you have tried over the counter and prescription medications without much or any success, you might want to consider the benefits that neurofeedback provides.
Recent studies have proven that neurofeedback is an excellent option for bringing relief from migraine headaches. In fact, the National Headache Foundation now recommends this natural and safe therapy for people with headaches and states that of those who have been through the therapy, the outcome has been far better than expected.
Eight out of ten people who are treated with neurofeedback for migraines experience what many are calling a cure. Relief for these people appears to be long lasting.
Research has shown that people who feel like much of what happens in their life is out of their hands are more likely to suffer from headaches than those who feel like they exert a great deal of control in the outcome of each day.
Interestingly enough, neurofeedback is all about allowing your brain to take control by regulating itself. For the people who prefer the “I’m the master of my fate” belief, neurofeedback will seem like a natural fit. But it will work just as well for people who feel at the mercy of the world around them – neurofeedback works independently of one’s beliefs. In fact, neurofeedback is especially effective in helping with conditions that are caused by, or affected by, stress.
During neurofeedback sessions, you may actually be able to train your brain to function within certain wavelengths, the ones that allow you to experience stressful situations or other common triggers, without the usual resulting headache. This is accomplished with an EEG machine that reads your brain waves, and transmits them through a computer and onto a display. You will control the movements of an image on the screen by using brain patterns that fall within the proper frequencies. After between twenty to forty sessions, these changes in brain function may become long lasting, and your migraines may be a thing of the past.
Neurofeedback is the epitome of ‘seeing is believing’. To actually be able to see what the brain is doing, in real time, and continue to watch as it changes and makes improvements, shifting effortlessly form one frequency to another depending on the context and the task at hand, is nothing short of a beautiful display of the complexity of the human brain and nervous system.
Although neurofeedback has been used in clinical settings since the 1970s, this was initially a controversial therapy. The good news is that since that time, people in the medical field have been shown just how beneficial biofeedback and neurofeedback are for a number of problems of the mind and body, which includes tension and migraine headaches.
Do you know a friend or loved one that would enjoy waking up each day, knowing, and trusting, that they could breeze through yet another day in comfort, no longer relying on prescription medications, or fearing that their plans would be ruined by a wicked migraine? Or perhaps you suffer yourself from these agonizing headaches. Just imagine finally getting painful headaches under control and reclaiming your life by using a natural and safe alternative to conventional medication!
What is a headache?
A Headache is defined as a pain in the head or upper neck. It is one of the most common locations of pain in the body and has many causes.How are headaches classified?
Headaches have numerous causes, and in 2007 the International Headache Society agreed upon an updated classification system for headache. Because so many people suffer from headaches and because treatment sometimes is difficult, it is hoped that the new classification system will allow health care practitioners come to a specific diagnosis as to the type of headache and to provide better and more effective treatment.
There are three major categories of headaches:
- primary headaches
- secondary headaches, and
- cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches
What are primary headaches?
Primary headaches include migraine, tension, and cluster headaches, as well as a variety of other less common types of headache.
- Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache. Up to 90% of adults have had or will have tension headaches. Tension headaches occur more commonly among women than men.
- Migraine headaches are the second most common type of primary headache. An estimated 28 million people in the United States (about 12% of the population) will experience a migraine headache. Migraine headaches affect children as well as adults. Before puberty, boys and girls are affected equally by migraine headaches, but after puberty, more women than men are affected. It is estimated that 6% of men and up to 18% of women will experience a migraine headache in their lifetime.
- Cluster headaches are a rare type of primary headache affecting 0.1% of the population (1 in a 1,000 people). It more commonly affects men in their late 20s though women and children can also suffer these types of headache.
What are Primary Headaches?
Primary headaches can affect the quality of life. Some people have occasional headaches that resolve quickly while others are debilitated. While these headaches are not life-threatening, they may be associated with symptoms that can mimic strokes or intracerebral bleeding.
What are secondary headaches?
Secondary headaches are those that are due to an underlying structural problem in the head or neck. There are numerous causes of this type of headache ranging from bleeding in the brain, tumor, or meningitis and encephalitis.
What are cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches?
Neuralgia means nerve pain (neur= nerve + algia=pain). Cranial neuralgia describes a group of headaches that occur because the nerves in the head and upper neck become inflamed and become the source of the pain in the head. Facial pain and a variety of other causes for headache are included in this category.
What causes tension headaches?
While tension headaches are the most frequently occurring type of headache, their cause is not known. The most likely cause is contraction of the muscles that cover the skull. When the muscles covering the skull are stressed, they may spasm and cause pain. Common sites include the base of the skull where the trapezius muscles of the neck inserts, the temple where muscles that move the jaw are located, and the forehead.
There is little research to confirm the exact cause of tension headaches. Tension headaches occur because of physical or emotional stress placed on the body. These stressors can cause the muscles surrounding the skull to clench the teeth and go into spasm. Physical stressors include difficult and prolonged manual labor, or sitting at a desk or computer for long periods of time concentrating. Emotional stress may also cause tension headaches by causing the muscles surrounding the skull to contract.
What are the symptoms of tension headaches?
The pain symptoms of a tension headache are:
- The pain begins in the back of the head and upper neck and is described as a band-like tightness or pressure.
- Often is described as pressure encircling the head with the most intense pressure over the eyebrows.
The pain usually is mild (not disabling) and bilateral (affecting both sides of the head).
- The pain is not associated with an aura, nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound.
- The pain occurs sporadically (infrequently and without a pattern) but can occur frequently and even daily in some people.
- The pain allows most people to function normally, despite the headache.
What causes cluster headaches?
The cause of cluster headaches is uncertain. It may be that certain parts of the brain begin to malfunction for an unknown reason. The hypothalamus, an area located at the base of the brain is responsible for the body’s biologic clock and may be the part of the brain that is the source for the headaches. When brain scans are performed on patients who are in the midst of a cluster headache, there is abnormal activity in the hypothalamus.
Cluster headaches also:
- tend to run in families and this suggests that there may be a genetic role;
- may be triggered by changes in sleep patterns;
- may be triggered by medications (for example, nitroglycerin, used for heart disease).
If an individual is in a susceptible period for cluster headache, cigarette smoking, alcohol, and some foods (for example, chocolate) also can be potential causes for headache.
What are the symptoms of cluster headaches?
Cluster headaches are headaches that come in groups (clusters) lasting weeks or months, separated by pain-free periods of months or years.
- During the period in which the cluster headaches occur, pain typically occurs once or twice daily, but some patients may experience pain more than twice daily.
- Each episode of pain lasts from 30 to 90 minutes.
- Attacks tend to occur at about the same time every day and often awaken the patient at night from a sound sleep.
- The pain typically is excruciating and located around or behind one eye.
- Some patients describe the pain as feeling like a hot poker in the eye. The affected eye may become red, inflamed, and watery.
- The nose on the affected side may become congested and runny.
Unlike patients with migraine headaches, patients with cluster headaches tend to be restless. They often pace the floor, bang their heads against a wall, and can be driven to desperate measures. Cluster headaches are much more common in men than women.
How Do I Cope with Daily Migraines?
Migraines can occur as little as once a year and as much as once a day, and daily migraines can seriously interfere with one’s ability to live life to the fullest. Coping with daily migraines should include not only relieving the pain, but also tracing it to its source so you can help prevent future migraines. When coping with a migraine, it is important to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and lie down in a room with low light or no light. This is an immediate relief but not a long-term solution.
The first step in coping with daily migraines is purchasing a notebook to record possible migraine triggers. Many foods can cause migraines, and it is important to keep track of what foods you eat the day before and the day of a migraine. Migraines are caused by low serotonin levels in the body, and your serotonin level can vary depending on diet and even the level of estrogen in the body. This may explain why women are more susceptible to migraines than men. The occurrence of daily migraines usually points to a consistent trigger rather than something you may encounter only once in a while, so a journal will help you keep track of possible triggers and find the source of your daily migraines.
Exposure to high levels of light may also be a trigger, as can loud or consistent noises. Be sure to track all the possible causes of your migraines as soon as you feel one may be coming on. Immediate comfort can be had by lying down in a dark, quiet room. More long-term solutions include designing a regular healthy diet that avoids food you know can cause migraines; smoking cessation, as smoking can be a potential cause of migraines; and reducing stress. Medications are available to help deal with the pain of daily migraines, and even over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate migraine pain. If your migraines are severe and consistent, see a doctor to talk about prescription drugs that can help tackle the problem.
When consulting with a doctor, ask whether physical therapy or counseling might be appropriate for you. Daily migraines are usually an indicator of a much larger problem that may include physical injury or even depression. Physical therapy may be the answer to migraines stemming from physical ailments, and counseling may help you work through depression or anxiety. A professional may even be able to prescribe drugs that can help with depression or other mental issues.
Neurofeedback for Migraine Headaches
Migraine headaches involve intense pain, often for several hours at a time. They can be extremely disabling and can result in the migraine sufferer’s inability to function at work or at home. Often the individual has to lie down in a darkened room until the migraine passes. Migraines are often preceded by a period of time in which the individual experiences a strange feeling in his or her head or gut, or other unusual sensations without a headache that is known as an “aura.”
The exact cause of migraines is poorly understood, but they are thought to be complex neurovascular phenomena that involve misfiring of the trigeminal nerve, excessive dilation of blood vessels and activity in the brainstem. A combination of neurofeedback, HEG and other biofeedback techniques has been found to significantly reduce the intensity and frequency of migraine headaches. Some studies have found abnormalities in the electophysiological (brainwave) activity in migraine patients, which suggest that training the brain to alter its electrophysiological activity in certain frequency bands might be effective. Clinical studies have indicated that this can be an effective treatment. Other studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of HEG training, in which cerebral blood flow is increased in the pre-frontal cortex, which might help the brain inhibit pain sensations. The type of HEG that we use is called passive Infrared Hemoencephalograpy (pIR HEG). These techniques are combined with biofeedback-assisted practices for regulating one’s breathing, which balances sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous system activity, and hand warming, which has a calming effect and might divert blood away from overly dilated blood vessels in the brain.