Brain Based Treatment for Migraine Headaches

Believe it or not, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses can stop a migraine in its tracks. A study published in Family Practice News journal found that a high percentage of migraine sufferers could obtain almost immediate relief by decreasing the amount of light that their eyes were exposed to. They did this by wearing red colored lenses at the onset of migraine symptoms. Most people that found relief did so within several minutes! The probable mechanism involved with this is that after entering the eye or ear, light and sound stimulate a part of the brainstem called the mesencephalon (me-zen-seph-a-lon) before stimulating the brain. This part of the nervous system is often “wound up” or fragile and more excitable in migraine sufferers. The natural light that we are used to seeing is actually a blend, or spectrum, of many different wavelengths.

For instance, when we look at a rainbow in the sky we are actually seeing natural light being separated into the many colors of the spectrum, for example: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Light functions like waves at the beach and the colors at the red end of the spectrum have longer wavelengths (fewer waves hitting the shore each minute) whereas violet light has a much higher frequency (more waves per minute) and is much more stimulating. By wearing red lenses a patient can filter out the more stimulating wavelengths of light that enter their eyes. This reduces the amount of stimulation to an already overexcited brainstem and nervous system. The patients in this study wore red contact lenses, which are the most effective way to block light from entering the eye. From a more practical and economic standpoint though, sunglasses with red lenses work almost as well, especially if they wrap around to prevent light from sneaking in from the sides. Dollar stores are often a good source to find such glasses. The only side effect to this treatment seems to be that red sunglasses available at such places are often not very fashionable.
The other important thing worth mentioning is that while red lenses may provide some temporary symptom relief, they are not a migraine cure. I like patients to think of them as a safety net or back up remedy that they can use on a temporary basis while we try to fix the cause of their problem. Recall that many migraine sufferers have nervous systems that are either fragile or “wound up” in the first place. Many of these people respond extremely well to treatment aimed at strengthening the parts of their nervous system that are affected. Between headaches we will often implement exercises for certain eye and spine muscles as well as the part of the ear that controls our sense of balance and equilibrium. Our nervous system is “plastic” and responds to the stimulation it receives. In a sense, our brain is similar to a muscle and can be exercised and strengthened. This idea is the cornerstone to implementing a brain-based rehab program. By identifying the parts that need strengthening and then exercising them through various forms of specific stimulation we can make plastic changes and actually cure many migraine sufferers (or people with other brain-based problems). Just like learning to play the piano or speaking a new language, success depends on the frequency, duration and intensity of brain stimulation/exercise.
The important thing to keep in mind is that no two nervous systems are exactly the same. What works with one person might fail with the next. Likewise, just because something didn’t help one person doesn’t mean it won’t help the next. I enjoy eating broccoli; my son clearly does not. Even though it is the same color, texture, odor and taste for both of us, our brains are wired differently from one another and perceive the stimulus (broccoli) in a unique way. Brain based rehab is similar to this example in that the real challenge to treating someone successfully is in finding the right combination of stimulation modalities that will work for their nervous system. Not only do I need to discover what is “wrong”, it is just as important to identify what’s right, so we know what we have available to work with during rehab.
At first glance it might truly seem to be a bit unorthodox or “alternative” for someone to get their spine adjusted and then sit on a balance ball while doing specific eye exercises while they listen to Mozart in one ear, but doing so can actually create plastic changes in the brain and fix the “cause” of their problem. When one considers the anatomical pathways and physiology incorporated with this type of treatment it suddenly makes more sense and becomes more plausible. From my standpoint, medications that provide temporary relief but do nothing to fix the actual problem should be the treatments labeled as “alternative”.

About Andrew Gregory

Dr. Andrew Gregory is a board certified chiropractic neurologist who sees neuropathy patients daily in his practice. He is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Neurology Board, a Fellow of the American College of Functional Neurology, a Fellow of the American Board of Electrodiagnostic Specialties and a Registered Nerve Conduction Technologist.
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