Migraines are becoming increasingly more common and are often overlooked by doctors. Many patients are unaware that often, migraines have a cause that can be pinpointed and eliminated. Just because migraines and headaches are common does not mean they are normal.
Many of my patients have suffered needlessly for years because migraines ‘run in their family’ or they have just 'got used to' the pain. They often have been dismissed by doctors, friends and family members who say that this is not a ’serious’ problem.
You deserve to be taken seriously, and a targeted effort should be made in uncovering any possible imbalances that may be causing your migraines and headaches.
Sometimes the solutions can be as simple as the correction of a vitamin deficiency or the elimination of a food sensitivity.
Head pain may be due to life-threatening conditions; these can include but are not limited to cerebral aneurysms, dissection syndromes, intracranial hemorrhages, infectious meningitis, space-occupying lesions, and temporal/giant cell arteritis.
The prevalence of these conditions causing chronic headaches or chronic migraines is low. However, an investigation to rule out these urgent conditions is warranted and usually has already been conducted when you see a primary care doctor and a neurologist.
Typical Treatment of Migraines
The typical approach for the treatment of headaches or migraines is either a mild lifestyle change (a doctor may suggest that you try meditating or yoga) or painkillers (like ibuprofen) or even stronger pharmaceuticals.
Many people do not find 100% relief with these pharmaceutical medications, and these medicines often can have severe side effects. Once more serious conditions have been ruled out - conventional treatment does not find the cause of the pain relevant.
In functional medicine, the cause of the pain is the priority. The body cannot be compartmentalized into bits and pieces based on anatomy, all aspects of the body are intrinsically connected.
If there is a symptom manifesting in one place, it is a ‘fire alarm’ for a deeper problem within the body. Sometimes migraine medication may be effective in limiting the pain signal itself, but it is not treating the primary issue.
Medications are not designed to heal your migraines or headaches; they are formulated to give you a temporary break from your suffering by ’turning off’ pain signals.
Headaches and Migraines - A Common Intersection
The presentation of head pain can vary enormously in a single patient and often changes over time. Headaches and migraines often overlap and are mistaken for each other by doctors and patients alike.
There are far too many informational pages using words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ to define certain characteristics of either headaches or migraines.
There are patients who think they have stress-induced headaches but who actually have a systemic infection that causes migraines. There are those whose migraines cause tension headaches in the days after their migraines and those who have a headache preceding their migraines.
Headaches usually last a few minutes to a few hours and are due to the contraction of muscles between the head and neck due to things like stress, a food sensitivity, sitting in one place too long (staring at a computer or driving for hours), mold exposure, or dehydration.
Migraine symptoms often are more complex and painful and last from an hour to a few days with symptoms that can present on one side of the head or the face. Migraines can be accompanied by an ‘aura’ which are visual disturbances.
The person can have symptoms after the pain passes such as fatigue and nausea. There are also migraines with no pain at all but with ‘aura’ disturbances and symptoms that would follow a painful migraine.
Migraines and chronic or severe headaches can be caused by environmental toxins (through beauty products or cleaning supplies), food sensitivities and allergies, weather changes, autoimmune conditions, or liver issues, just to name a few.
Hidden Causes of Migraines
A Possible Cause of Migraines:
Hidden Chronic Infections
There are far too many causes of migraines to be outlined on this page, but a few examples will show you how nuanced the problem can be.
One of the most common conditions in those who suffer from migraines is a chronic infection. We are not referring to something like the flu where there is acute pain, a fever, and fatigue but a 'hidden' infection.
Persistent infections (like Epstein Barr Virus-EBV, Cytomegalovirus-CMV, and the different shingles varieties) that can cause chronic pain and are not usually identified using standard blood tests so they are not easily diagnosed.
It is common for these latent infections to inflame nerves including the trigeminal nerve (which is on your face), which can, in turn, cause pain in the form of headaches and migraines.
It is also common for a chronic strep infection in the sinuses to cause headaches and migraines. Sinus congestion is a common side effect of migraines, making it is easy for this potential cause to be overlooked.
Longstanding gut infections are also a possible culprit for head pain. Harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal system, whether in the stomach, small or large intestines can produce toxic waste products that can travel to the head and nerves triggering severe pain and brain fog symptoms.
Gastrointestinal infections that can trigger head pain include SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and other imbalances in the gut flora.
Remember, the whole body is connected and it functions together. A problem in one place can cause symptoms in another place.
A Possible Cause of Migraines:
Another frequent cause of migraines is electrolyte deficiency. It is well known that dehydration can cause headaches but it is not well understood that simply drinking more water may not be sufficient.
Many people consume large quantities of caffeine in the form of coffee, iced tea, and soda - all of these act as diuretics and deplete the body of electrolytes.
To counteract the electrolyte imbalance you need to eat specific fruits and vegetables. Stress, caffeine, and consuming high-fat foods all dehydrate the body, lower electrolyte levels and negatively affect the pH balance of the body. This can set the stage to trigger your migraines or headaches.
A Possible Cause of Migraines:
Hidden Food Sensitivities
A poor 'western' diet has been linked to the frequency and severity of migraines. What is less well known is the prevalence of food sensitivities and the chaos they can cause in the body.
Food sensitivities and allergies can cause severe headaches and migraines but are rarely looked for by most practitioners. Many people assume that if they do not have gastrointestinal upset, constipation or abdominal pain - they do not have a food allergy.
Food sensitivities can actually cause no gastrointestinal upset and instead cause autoimmune-like symptoms, neurological symptoms, weight gain and anxiety.
Read more on our Food Sensitivities page.
Functional Medicine is Personalized Medicine
Once more serious conditions have been ruled out it is vital that you attempt to get to the root of why you are experiencing chronic headaches or migraines.
While self-treatment in the form of special diets and supplements may help, it is far more effective to work with a doctor to isolate a possible cause and begin a targeted treatment plan.
It is true for many patients that because their head pain is so severe that they do not even notice that for years they do not have the energy they once did, and also suffer from digestive problems or other symptoms.
In a functional medicine appointment, we will explore your medical history, any recent tests you have had done, possibly schedule future testing and give you a plan of attack to get you out of pain.