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A migraine is classified as a primary headache disorder distinguished by recurrent moderate to severe pain that lasts up to 72 hours. The pain can be described as pulsating or throbbing, which can be of disabling intensity, and usually affects only one side of the head. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, as well as extreme sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or any combination of the three.
Migraines usually begin during childhood or adolescence, or at the onset of early adulthood. This disorder affects some one billion people or about 15% of the worldwide population, with about 1.4 to 2.2% cases considered as chronic. Some people are able to “power through” these headaches, which is why migraines are often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed and untreated.
While the main symptom of a migraine is head pain, it is often difficult to tell the difference between a migraine and other kinds of headaches, such as tension or cluster headaches. In fact, while the most distinct characteristic of a migraine is that it affects only one hemisphere at a time, there are some cases where it affects both sides of the head. Sometimes, an attack doesn’t even cause a headache; instead, the patient suffers from some or all of the other symptoms of a migraine. This is what is called a silent or acephalgic migraine.
There are four stages of a migraine attack, although not all patients go through all of them. The first stage, called the prodrome, serves as the “warning stage” and occurs one or two days before the migraine. Symptoms include constipation, food cravings, increased thirst and urination, frequent yawning, and abrupt, even drastic, mood changes.
The second stage is called the aura, which can occur before or during migraines, although most patients don’t experience this stage. The most common symptoms are visual disturbances such as bright spots of light or wavy vision. However, auras can also be sensory, motor, or even verbal disturbances. Migraine aura lasts for about 20 to 60 minutes, and can include vision loss, numbness in the face or one side of the body, difficulty in speaking, small uncontrollable movements, and limb weakness (called hemiplegic migraine).
The third stage is the migraine attack itself, which can last up to 4 hours when treated, and up to 72 hours or more when untreated. Depending on the person, migraine attacks can occur as rare as once a year, to as often as several times a month. During a migraine, a person may experience any combination of the following symptoms: throbbing or pulsing pain on one or both sides of the head; sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells; nausea and vomiting; blurred vision; and lightheadedness.
The final stage is known as post-drome, which occurs right after a migraine attack. Again, depending on the person, the patient may feel either exhausted or euphoric, with lingering feelings of confusion, dizziness, and weakness. Light and sound sensitivity may also persist for up to 24 hours after the attack.
While the actual causes of migraine have yet to be completely understood, it is widely accepted that environmental factors, genetics, and hormonal and chemical imbalances play key roles in causing the disorder. This is why different medications are used in addressing migraine.
Preventive medications -- which include cardiovascular drugs like beta blockers and calcium channel blockers, anti-depressants, anti-seizure drugs, and botox -- are given to people who have frequent and prolonged (more than 12 hours) migraine attacks and those who experience a prolonged aura. These medications have been found to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, and even prevent attacks altogether in some cases.
Meanwhile, pain medications are used as abortive treatment. These are taken as soon as the person experiences the symptoms of a migraine. Popular pain medications for migraine include aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen; triptans like almotriptan and eletriptan that make blood vessels constrict and block pain pathways; and ergots like ergotamine and dihydroergotamine, which are common treatments for severe, throbbing headaches.
Alternatively, people also medicate their migraines with glucocorticoids, opioids, and cannabis when other medications don’t work. Cannabis, in particular, is a highly popular, albeit controversial, migraine treatment.
Using cannabis for pain relief and other medicinal purposes has long been a practice, dating back to at least 10,000 years ago. This is especially prevalent in Asian countries like India and China, where the herb is also used for both religious and cultural ceremonies. Today, the main focus of scientific studies are the therapeutic potentials of cannabinoids, particularly THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), which have their own distinct pain-fighting properties.
THC, the primary psychoactive compound found in cannabis, is popular for the “couch lock high” it delivers. For most people, this effect alone is enough for them to manage the pain caused by a migraine attack until it subsides a few hours later. Because THC also has sedative effects, those who suffer migraines at night may also use cannabis to help them sleep.
On the other hand, CBD helps process the body’s naturally occurring cannabinoids (or endocannabinoids) more effectively, by activating or inhibiting them. When it comes to pain, CBD stops the body from absorbing anandamide, an endocannabinoid that’s also called the “bliss molecule”. With more anandamide in the bloodstream, the less sensations of pain can be felt.
Both these effects are beneficial for those who experience migraines. In fact, a recent study involving 121 adults showed a decrease in frequency of migraine headaches (from 10.4 to 4.6 per month) and about 85% of the participants reported that they experienced fewer migraines per month with the use of cannabis. A further 19.8% claimed that medical marijuana helped to outright prevent their migraine attacks.
Another study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, delved into the role of the body’s endocannabinoid (EC) system in treating migraine headaches. Researchers from the University of California San Francisco found that the activation of cannabinoid receptors in the brain -- triggered through the consumption of cannabis -- helped modulate pain signals. The same study also showed that an interaction between cannabinoid and serotonin receptors in the brain may influence the mechanism behind migraine relief. This led the researchers to conclude that the EC system may have a role in triggering the pain-relieving effects of triptans.
Cannabis has also been found to have antiemetic effects, which helps address the other common symptoms of migraine: nausea and vomiting. The herb may also counter the loss of appetite that migraine attacks sometimes trigger.
Alleviate Migraines. RELIEF Helps Your Body Feel Better.
The most pressing issue about migraine is the debilitating headache that often comes with it. Most patients are looking for immediate relief from this intense pain, which is why most migraine sufferers prefer smoking cannabis due to its almost instantaneous results.
However, some people may be averse to smoking for several reasons, such as other underlying medical conditions. In this case, vaporizing cannabis oil is a suitable alternative. This method is generally as quick and convenient as smoking, without the negative effects such as allergies and irritation of the mouth and throat. Another benefit of vaporizing cannabis oil is that the precise dosage of THC and/or CBD which helps avoid (unpleasant) surprises when you’re trying to achieve specific effects.
On the other hand, consuming cannabis in the form of edibles may be more ideal for patients who have already determined the pattern and frequency of their migraine attacks. Once they notice the symptoms of prodrome, they can start pre-emptive medication through edibles and follow through with appropriate treatment once the migraine attack happens. The primary advantage of eating cannabis is that it delivers a balanced, full-body effect of all the benefits because the cannabinoids are distributed through the bloodstream.
Both THC and CBD have been found to be effective in dealing with migraine, so the strain you choose will most likely depend on your symptoms and the kind of relief that you’re looking for. High-THC strains like OG Kush, which is among the most popular strains around the world, have powerful sedative effects, making them ideal for sleeping off your migraine. OG Kush in particular has over 20% THC levels, making it an extremely potent pain killer.
Purple Kush is another high-THC strain, ranging from 17% to 22%, that’s perfect for soothing that migraine headache. It also delivers a heavy, body numbing sensation, so you might want to use this if you’re looking for something to lull you into a deep sleep. Another powerful indica with close to 20% THC content is God’s Gift. With this, you won’t be able to resist the comfort of your bed as the pain and other migraine symptoms melt away. God’s Gift also triggers the munchies, so if you’re the kind of migraine patient that loses their appetite, this strain is one that you should look out for.
ACDC, meanwhile, is a sativa-dominant hybrid with a 20:1 CBD:THC ratio. This means it delivers the pain-relieving effects of cannabis without a psychoactive high. This strain is also known to be able to stave off nausea, another common symptom of migraines. Another high-CBD strain with under 1% THC content is the rather rare Remedy. It is reputed to bring a rather pleasant relaxation, as it reduces inflammations associated with migraines.
If you’re looking to fight your migraine headache and get a productivity boost at the same time, Chocolope is a good choice. It is a fast-acting sativa that gets rid of extreme pain while delivering an energizing boost. This strain delivers an effect that is like drinking a strong cup of coffee, with its earthy, coffee-like flavor. Cannatonic is a highly acclaimed medical marijuana strain with about 17% CBD content and lower than 6% THC levels. This makes it effective for treating pain and migraines, but produces very little psychoactive consequences.
Those looking for more balanced effects may look to Harlequin, a sativa-dominant hybrid that produces clear-headed alertness even as it delivers a relaxing, pain-relieving high. It will still give you a mild buzz, but not so much that it will pin you down on your couch. Dream Queen is another popular hybrid that balances the effects of THC and CBD. This sativa-dominant strain is a cross between Blue Dream and Space Queen, which makes it perfect for situations when you want to relax but don’t want to just sleep. As an added bonus, Dream Queen is also a reputed nausea fighter. If you’re prone to nausea-inducing migraines, then this strain might be the one you’re looking for.
White Widow is another rather balanced hybrid with 40% indica ant 60% sativa origins, thus resulting into an uplifting high combined with full-body relaxation. With a near-constant 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD, Sweet and Sour Widow is a hybrid that possesses both pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, with a mild mental buzz. This strain also provides clear-headedness even as it relieves most migraine symptoms.
Migraines can become quite difficult to deal with, especially if the attacks happen more frequently. There are several non-pharmaceutical methods like cognitive behavior therapy and lifestyle changes, among others, used by medical professionals in managing symptoms and preventing migraine attacks in general. However, there are some cases when these methods don’t work or are not possible at the time, making migraine medication a necessity for most patients.
And so the quest for the cure for migraine continues. In the meantime, while we are waiting for this medical breakthrough, people who suffer from migraines can turn to either prescription and/or over-the-counter drugs, or non-traditional remedies that have nonetheless been proven effective.
Research And Studies Show That Cannabis May Be Able To Help With Migraines
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