Migraines are one of the most debilitating conditions a person can suffer from. Even with the incredible tools available to modern scientists, exactly what causes migraines is still not well understood. Most headaches result from an overstimulation of the trigeminal nerve, the main pain pathway of the brain. Migraines do the same but in a different way that remains somewhat of a mystery.
The human brain is the most complex thing ever encountered in nature. Nearly 100 billion neurons and an average of 10,000 connections between them make for a level of complexity that it is not possible for any one human to understand. This is one of the reasons that it is not well understood. Even conditions like migraines, which have been recorded since the days of Hippocrates (he was the first person to write about them that we know about, back in 400 B.C.), are still elusive to the scientists who are studying them.
Early attempts at treating migraines scientifically were focused on constricting blood vessels (vasoconstriction). In the 1930’s some chemicals derived from ergot had some success. The effects were somewhat patchy but some long-term sufferers were found to benefit from the drug. On a side note, LSD was discovered in the process of finding these vasoconstricting ergotamine-like drugs.
In studies where scientists have scanned the brains of migraine patients, they have found that nerve cells are potentially inflamed, causing the threshold for a signal to pass through them to be lowered, and thus increasing the sensitivity to pain. This appears to centre around the trigeminal nerve or causes excitation of this nerve.
Many people who suffer from migraines get “auras”. These are believed that they are caused by a reduction in the electrical activity of the brain. There are several distinct types of a migraine, but the differences between them and their causes are not well understood.
This lack of understanding is a disappointment to many people who are looking for effective treatments for their migraines. The complexity of the brain makes it impossible to operate on with the degree of precision needed to change the neurons themselves, and the drugs that are effective at preventing or relieving migraine headaches act on the rest of the brain and body too, producing some unwanted side-effects.
Causes of Migraines
As mentioned earlier, we really don’t know very much about exactly what causes a migraine. However, we believe that the following risk factors play a large role:
Because what causes migraines is still not understood, the most that people who experience chronic migraines can hope to do is limit the number of triggers they experience and take medications for the effects of migraine attacks when they do occur. Learning how to prevent migraines can be difficult because everyone has different triggers. Many women suffer from migraines when they are approaching menstruation, so preventative medications can be used fairly successfully.
For many people with migraines, there are no triggers, but things that do commonly trigger migraines include:
If you think you are getting a migraine, this simple checklist should help you tell. If your symptoms include the following, it may be time to seek a diagnosis from your family doctor:
Symptoms can last from 4 hours to a few days. Some of the symptoms are more likely to appear in the days or hours before an attack, and some will appear during the attack. If you think you are suffering from a migraine, talk to your doctor about effective pain relief and prevention strategies.
If you have decided that you don’t like the look of the painkillers on offer, or you are allergic to them, CBD could be a good option. Unfortunately, there is both a lack of proper scientific evidence for the use of CBD and migraines and a lot of hype surrounding the drug. That is not to say there is not any evidence, it is just that it is patchy, not very high quality, and far from comprehensive.
The reasons for this are frustrating for the people who have discovered that cannabinoids help with their migraine attacks. Cannabis was (mistakenly it seems) included with drugs like cocaine and heroin when Western governments started prohibiting drugs in the 1920’s. This was totally against all the evidence, but there was a lot of hysteria about the so-called evils of cannabis, which is only just dying down now.
Currently, most countries ban cannabis outright. Even chemicals that are not psychoactive, like CBD, are still banned because they are part of the cannabis plant. There have been high profile cases of people’s health being severely threatened because they could not take CBD in the country they lived in. Studying cannabis and cannabinoids (the chemical compounds which contain the healing properties of medical cannabis) has been difficult, if not impossible, in many places because of this. The scientific record is far from complete, limiting the clinical uses of cannabinoids for migraines.
There have been some promising studies, however, and the amount of anecdotal evidence for people treating their migraines successfully with cannabis is impressive. Anecdotal evidence is somewhat useful for pointing science in the right direction, but it cannot be used to assess a drug clinically or scientifically.
One study has shown that cannabis use reduced the frequency of migraines in a decently sized cohort of volunteers. This is welcome news as many drugs do not have this effect, or are so tolerable. People who use cannabis recreationally might be fine with the effects but a lot of people do not want to be ‘stoned’ all the time just to reduce their migraine frequency. This is why CBD could be a wonderful alternative for them. CBD does not cause a ‘high’.
If you experience migraines, you’re likely to be feeling frustrated, exhausted, and a little bit desperate. Yes, using CBD as a treatment is likely to help reduce your symptoms and possibly even prevent attacks. But nobody can say this for absolute certain, yet. Hopefully in the not too distant future more will become known about CBD and it will be possible to roll it out as a migraine treatment. In the meantime, it’s best to focus on identifying and avoiding common migraine triggers.
However, if you are planning to use CBD or cannabis for your migraine attacks, be sure to talk to your doctor about it before doing so. CBD can have side effects. They are rare and mild, but some people do not respond well to the drug. It is illegal in most of the world, so if it is illegal where you live, do not use it. Your doctor should know about what drugs you are taking so they can make the best decisions with you about your treatment.