Many people know the unpleasantness of a bad headache, but it should not be confused with the 6th most disabling illness in the world. In just this country alone, 12% of the population including children suffer from these types of chronic headaches— in fact, every 10 seconds someone goes to the emergency room with an acute migraine attack. Described by some as recurring and severe, with a throbbing or pulsating sensation, migraines occur several times a week and are way more intense than a regular tension headache. Normal headaches tend to be symmetrical in nature, lasting between 1-4 hours and usually caused by stress or anxiety. Migraine headaches are more intense and asymmetrical in nature, meaning that they often affect one part of the head like behind an eye or concentrated just in the temples. Many migraine sufferers develop a sensitivity to light and at times have reported vision loss. Some migraine sufferers even describe seeing geometric patterns and blurred light in their peripheral vision. While we still don’t know exactly what causes migraines, one thing is for sure, relief is a welcome commodity—especially if it comes in the form of a natural product with no long-term side effects.
The most common treatments for migraines historically have been painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen. The downside to these is that patients often report rebound headaches or something called ‘medication overuse headaches’—which are secondary types of headaches that happens when people overuse or go over the recommended dose in an effort to halt the excruciating pain. The relationship between cannabis and migraines started over 30 years ago in clinical studies but but has since picked up steam from researchers and migraine sufferers alike. A 2016 study from the University of Colorado published in the journal Pharmacotherapy, found that 40% of patients reported a positive effect on their levels of pain after using cannabis. Most interesting was the fact that those same patients reported a decrease in the number of migraine episodes. The remaining patients said their headaches were not of the same intensity after cannabis use. The study’s author, Professor Laura Borgelt, said that there was clear and “substantial improvement for patients in their ability to function and feel better”. The study looked at the charts of patients treated at Gedde Whole Health, a private medical practice in Colorado that specializes in recommending marijuana for a variety of conditions. More than half of the patients studied had a history of migraines and were currently using cannabis for medical treatment.
The researcher found that various forms of cannabis were effective such as inhaled marijuana as well as edibles. Inhaling the marijuana seemed be the favorite form of treatment for acute migraines while edible cannabis, which takes longer to impact the body, helped prevent headaches from actually starting. Exactly how cannabis helped to relieve the migraine is still not fully understood although Borgelt said that cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body, including the brain, probably had something to do with it. She explained how cannabinoids in marijuana appear to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties and that they also seem to affect critical neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. “We believe serotonin plays a role in migraine headaches, but we are still working to discover the exact role of cannabinoids in this condition,” Borgelt said.
The results of the study were quite remarkable by anyone’s estimation as it provided one crucial hint – that cannabis can be an effective treatment in the reduction of migraine frequency. Borgelt also said that more controlled studies would be needed in the future, ideally- ones that were randomized and placebo-controlled. It would also be helpful if, just like prescription drug studies, the patients were given standardized quantities and potencies of medical marijuana while tracking the occurrence of migraines. But given the current legal statuses in certain states, that kind of study would likely require legislative changes before it could be done.
It is clear that if headache sufferers are looking for alternatives to migraine medication– they should consider medical marijuana especially if they are looking to decrease the frequency. Although this study and several others are showing promising results in decreasing the frequency of migraines in sufferers, patients looking to consider medical marijuana as a viable treatment for their debilitating headaches should speak with their health care provider first.
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