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A New Therapy for Migraine Headaches: Massage, Lymph Drainage and Reflexology

A migraine headache is defined as a severe type of headache, often accompanied by symptoms such as sensitivity to light (photophobia), nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to noise. Migraines tend to affect more women and men, and usually start between the ages of 10 and 45. It is not an uncommon ailment. According to the American Migraine Foundation, these headaches affect 36 million Americans annually, or 12% of the population.

Common conventional treatments for migraines include medication such as Elavil, Amitriptyline or Gabapentin. Over-the-counter medications such as Ibuprofen or combination medications that include aspirin, caffeine and acetaminophen can also be used. Many people, however, are trying to avoid taking medication. A combination therapy including massage therapy, reflexology and lymphatic drainage therapy can be the answer.

Massage therapy involves the manipulation of the body’s soft tissues to relax muscles and fascia, enhance blood flow, promote relaxation, and promote healing. While used popularly as an overall relaxation technique, it is now widely being used in health care. Although often termed “alternative” health, it has been in use for more than 5000 years.

Lymphatic Drainage Therapy is a gentle technique used to move lymph fluid though the body. Lymphatic’s are a system of vessels that transport lymph fluid throughout the body. This fluid is responsible for transporting white blood cells and is a major player in the body’s immune system. Major concentrations of lymph vessels and lymph nodes are located in the neck, underarms, breasts, and inguinal are (groin).

Reflexology involves using pressure points in the feet to affect specific areas of the body. This technique works to balance the body’s natural energy force, or Qi. Another effect is returning homeostasis to the nervous system and the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller.

The first part of the treatment involves conventional massage. Long strokes using the flat part or heal of the hands are used to relax muscles and bring oxygen-enriched blood to the upper back, shoulders, neck, and head. The increased blood flow to the are will help to reduce pain by increasing the oxygen concentration. A lighter pressure will be used as deep tissue may only serve to worsen pain in this particular instance.

Although currently not widely used, Lymphatic Drainage as a treatment for migraines was being studied as far back as 1989. A German study found that if used in the early stages of a migraine, lymphatic drainage can either greatly reduce or perhaps even stop the pain. Although the exact etiology of a migraine is not yet known, we do know that “the actual migraine pain occurs via pain mediator sensitization of nociceptors in the vascular walls” (Trettin). Lymphatic drainage produces a sympathetic-suppressive effect in the body. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for many of the “rise and fall” systems of the body, such as pupil response, GI motility (why your stomach tightens up when you are stressed), and the fight or flight mechanism in your body. The fact that LD suppresses the sympathetic nervous system may aid in the reduction of pressure in the head, thus reducing pain and may reduce GI motility, reducing nausea and vomiting. One factor that may precipitate a migraine is stress. The sympathetic-suppressive effect of LD will help to reduce stress providing yet another weapon against the pain. A full-body lymphatic drainage treatment is indicated, especially in severe attacks.

The final portion of the treatment involves foot reflexology. As discussed above, this technique will rebalance the nervous system as well as to aid in the release of endorphins to help the body to help itself.

The treatment can be used as a preventative measure, or in the acute setting during a migraine. It is important to note that this combination therapy is not a substitute for the assessment or treatment recommended by your physician. A severe headache can indicate other ailments other than a migraine, and your physician should be consulted if you feel it is necessary.

Trettin, H. (1989). Manual Lymph Drainage in Migraine Treatment – A Pathophysiologic Explanatory Model. Z Lymphol, 13(1), 48 – 53.