Monday, October 14, 2002

Migraine sufferers seek alternative treatments

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Alternative treatments, including acupuncture and chiropractic care, are effective at knocking out and even preventing migraines for many patients.

Some patients, like Brittany McCammon, 17, of Mason haven't had any luck using medications to manage their migraines. Others prefer not to take medications when there are other options.

Brittany started getting migraines when she was in middle school. Eventually the headaches became so disabling that she had to stop going to school. She's now home-schooled by her mother.

"Mine were just to the point that I felt there were knives and nails and whatever pounding into my head and my head was going to explode," she says.

She tried Imitrex, a popular new prescription drug that's related to frovatriptan, along with Demerol, morphine, Fioricet and other painkillers. "We tried all the typical migraine medicines, the sprays, the shots, the pills," she says.

Like many people with uncontrollable migraines, Brittany found herself locked in an escalating cycle of pain. When her headaches started, she might get one a month. She was taking so many medications that she kept getting rebound migraines: As soon as the medication wore off, the headache would start up again.

When the latest treatments for migraines didn't help and her headache was almost constant, Brittany turned to an ancient technique: Acupuncture.

"My mom had read about it and we decided to try it. On the way there, we were, like, `This is crazy. This can't work,' " she says.

But it did. It took a year of a combination of acupuncture, chiropractic, energy healing and, at times, injections of local anesthetic into the base of her skull to immediately numb migraine pain, but Brittany hasn't had to take medication or go back to her acupuncturist for more than a year.

"I went from having a migraine five days a week to having it twice a week, once a week, twice a month and it got progressively better," she says.

Martha Stephen, 42, of Kenwood suffered several migraines a month and had milder headaches almost every day. Her primary care doctor suggested she try acupuncture, and at her first session, she asked the doctor, "Is this going to work if I don't believe in it?"

It hasn't completely cured Ms. Stephen's headaches, but now she rarely gets a migraine. She goes in for acupuncture monthly or whenever she gets a headache.

Acupuncture experts say the technique relieves migraines on a number of fronts. One explanation says the technique clears blockages in the flow of energy, or chi, through the body. Those blockages, left untreated, cause illness. Acupuncture is believed to trigger the release of endorphins such as serotonin and natural painkillers produced by the brain as it acts to ease inflammation, says Dr. Gregory Koo, an acupuncturist and family practitioner at St. Elizabeth Holistic Health Center in Edgewood.

Imbalances of serotonin and other neurochemicals are believed to trigger the inflammation in blood vessels in the brain and cranium that lead to migraines.

Dr. Steven Amoils, co-director of the Alliance Institute for Integrative Medicine in Kenwood, says alternative therapies "shine" for highly motivated patients whose migraines haven't responded to more traditional treatments.

Chiropractic treatments, or spinal adjustments, help ease tension in the neck and shoulders, and energy healing helps the patient relax. Using local anesthetics such as lidocaine, which is injected into the neck near the base of the skull, helps immediately end pain "and break the cycle of migraine," Dr. Amoils says.

Dr. Koo says most patients want drugs first, but he prefers to try acupuncture first. "Drugs are risky. Drugs are expensive. They have a lot of side effects," he says.

But it's hard to convince a patient with a killer headache that sticking needles into his neck and scalp is going to help, especially since many insurance plans won't pay for acupuncture, he says.


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