Migraines are the third most prevalent condition worldwide, yet are still difficult to treat. If you’re experiencing sensitivity to noise or light, pain or nausea, and traditional medicine isn’t helping you may have another option. Medical marijuana is a proven treatment for relieving migraines and may even help prevent future headaches from starting.
What are Migraines?
Migraine headaches afflict 28 million Americans, yet they remain under-treated and under-diagnosed. Less than half the sufferers are diagnosed by their doctors. Migraine headaches can be extremely severe and debilitating and can cause significant pain and other side effects for hours or even days.
People often describe their severe headache as a “migraine.” However, a migraine headache comes on due to specific physiologic changes that happen in your brain, which causes the pain and other symptoms of migraines.
A migraine headache causes sensitivity to light, sound and smells. You may even experience nausea or vomiting. With migraines, the pain you feel usually involves one side of your head. Some people feel the pain on both sides. Pain from chronic headaches can feel like pounding or throbbing, and physical exertion tends to make the discomfort worse.
Most Common Types of Migraines
People experience several different types of migraines. Knowing which kind you’re experiencing makes it easier to treat them and prevent future attacks.
The two main types of migraines are:
Migraine without Aura
This migraine is the most prevalent. You experience moderate to severe one-sided headache pain that pulsates. You’ll also have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Sensitivity to light, sound or smells.
- Blurred vision
- Mood changes
Migraines without aura tend to last four to 72 hours. You may get this headache a few times per year. If you have migraines without auras often, you may have chronic headaches.
Migraine with Aura
Once called a classic migraine, this condition cause visual disturbances and neurological symptoms before your headache starts. Visual disturbances include flashing lights, blind spots, zig-zag and wavy lines, which can last for 10 minutes to more than one hour.
Several, lesser known, migraines also exist. Below are six kinds that you may not be familiar with:
You may know about the noise and light sensitivity, nausea, vomiting and throbbing pain that comes with migraine headaches, but up to 60 percent of migraine sufferers also have intense dizziness and sensitivity to motion. Twenty percent experience severe vertigo that could result in fainting episodes. These are vestibular migraines.
Retinal or Ocular Migraine
You distinguish a retinal migraine from other headaches if you have repeated episodes of visual disturbance in one eye. Blindness, blind spots or sparkles and flashes of light are also symptoms. Fortunately, these symptoms are typically temporary, cause little pain and last for around 30 minutes.
Migraine with Brainstem Aura (MBA)
MBAs creates an aura and one or more of these reversible symptoms:
- Slurred speech
- Gait imbalance
- Pain at the back of the head
- Double vision
You may also experience a decreased level of consciousness.
This condition is common in adolescents and children. It also often serves as a sign that they’ll start developing migraines. These headaches involve repeated bouts of severe nausea and vomiting. Abdominal pain, near your midline or navel, may accompany your nausea.
Because abdominal migraines don’t create a headache and aren’t a leading cause of stomach pain, they’re difficult to treat. To diagnose these migraines, many physicians look at your family history, as more than 70 percent of patients with migraines have a family history of them.
Along with the cramps and mood swings you experience during your period, you may also have menstrual migraines. However, fewer than 20 percent of women get migraines during their menstrual cycle. They may experience headaches at other times during the month, but it’s around their period that their migraines worsen due to hormone fluctuations.
A true menstrual migraine only occurs during your menstrual cycle and often happens one day into your cycle or two days before your period starts. If you have headaches at least two out of every three cycleseach year, it’s likely a menstrual migraine.
When you have a hemiplegic migraine, you often experience motor weakness that’s not always reversible. For instance, partial body paralysis may accompany your migraines but last longer than your headache. Hemiplegic migraines are more common in children and infants than they’re in adults. They’re also hard to diagnose due to their complexity.
As studies continue to examine migraines and the science behind them, it’s possible more types of chronic headaches will be discovered and treated with alternative medicine, like medical marijuana.
History of Migraines
Migraines are among the oldest known conditions. The ancient Egyptians reported the earliest cases of painful headaches back in 1200 B.C. An initial description, written in ancient Egypt around 1500 BCE on papyrus was consistent with migraine symptoms.
Hippocrates, later in approximately 400 B.C., referred to the visual disturbances that come before a migraine headache, such as blurred vision and flashing lights. He also described how sufferers felt relief after vomiting. Hippocrates notes were later reiterated in 200 B.C.E.
The credit of migraine discovery goes to Aretaeus of Cappadocia. He described the unilateral or one sided headaches in the second century that are characteristic of migraines, as well as the vomiting that accompanies chronic headaches and the symptom-free time periods between attacks.
His second-century description classified headaches by separating them into three categories:
The term hemicrania, meaning half-head, was a word that Galen of Pergamum used to describe this type of headache pain. He suggested that the discomfort from migraines came from the meninges and blood vessels in the head.
In the 17th century, aggressive treatments for migraines were developed. William Harvey, a physician, suggested trepanation, or drilling a hole in the skull, as a migraine treatment. The procedure was believed to let evil spirits escape. History shows, however, that Harvey wasn’t the first to suggest the practice. In fact, as early as 7,000 B.C.E., people were practicing trepanation.
Prognosis for the surgery was rarely positive. Many died from infections, while some did survive.
Migraine headaches were first separated into the two types we use now during the 19th century:
- Migraine vulgaire or migraine without aura
- Migraine ophthalmic or migraine with aura
These terms came from a French Librarian named Louis Hyacinthe Thomas back in 1887.
Although multiple treatments were attempted for migraines, it wasn’t until 1868 that a treatment came that was successful. Fungus ergot was this medicine, which was once used to stop bleeding during childbirth.
It was in 1959 that methysergide was developed and later in 1988 that sumatriptan, the first triptan, was developed. As medicine advanced throughout the 20th century, more preventative methods were developed as migraine knowledge grew.
Symptoms of Migraines
Migraines tend to start during childhood or early adulthood. They often progress through four stages which include:
You might not experience all four of these stages. A couple of days before you get a migraine though, you might notice some subtle warning signs that you have one coming. These symptoms include:
- Drastic mood change
- Stiff neck
- Food cravings
- Frequent yawning
- Increased urination and thirst
Some migraines are accompanied by extreme sensitivity to sound and light as well as nausea and vomiting. Some people get a warning “sign” that a migraine is imminent. They receive an aura or visual sign that comes in the form of a blind spot, flashes of light or tingling in the leg or arm. Auras can sometimes be sensory, verbal or motor disturbances. You might feel like someone is touching you, for example, or that your muscles become weak.
These symptoms tend to come on gradually, build up over a few minutes and last anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes. Migraine aura examples include:
- Vision loss or blind spots.
- Visual phenomena like bright spots, various shapes or flashes of light.
- Trouble speaking.
- Pins and needle sensations in your legs or arms.
- Hearing music or noises.
- Numbness or weakness on one side of your body or face.
- Uncontrollable movements, like jerking.
- Occasional limb weakness, usually from a hemiplegic migraine.
Migraines typically last from 4 to 72 hours if left untreated. Each person differs in the frequency of their headaches, as well as how often they occur. Around 1.7 to four percent of Americans, for example, have migraines 15 or more days each month, while five million Americans have at least one migraine a month.
Symptoms of a migraine include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain on both or one side of your head
- Sounds, smells, light or touch sensitivity
- Pulsing or throbbing pain
- Blurred vision
Post-drome is the final stage of a migraine and happens after an attack. It can leave you feeling drained or relieved. During the next 24 hours patients may experience:
- Sensitivity to sound and light
Because of the debilitating symptoms of migraines, they can be a financial burden for those suffering from the disease. Healthcare and productivity costs from migraines are estimated at $36 billion in the U.S., while the cost of treating chronic headaches alone is more than $5.4 billion. Most patients with migraines, around 91 percent, are also unable to work when having an attack.
Treatments Available for Migraines and Their Side Effects
Treatments for acute migraines may vary from prescription drugs to over-the-counter medications like:
- Ibuprofen, also known as Motrin or Advil.
- Acetaminophen or Tylenol.
- Naproxen Sodium or Aleve.
Triptans — discovered in 1988 — are also used for migraine relief and include:
Triptans can be quite effective in treating migraines and helping patients recover at home. Now available as a combination of sumatriptan and naproxen, you can also get sumatriptan as a patch.
Side effects of triptans may include:
- Dry mouth
- Chest pain
- Temperature change
- Hot flashes
Some medications are ideal for home use, while others require you to visit the emergency department or your doctor’s office. Traveling to the doctor or emergency room during an attack, however, is difficult for patients without someone to accompany them.
Other available treatments for migraines include:
- Dihydroergotamine (DHE 45). Doctors administer this medication either by nasal spray or intravenously. You shouldn’t use it if you’ve already received a triptan within the past 24 hours. Side effects include headaches, dizziness, flushing, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and sweating.
- Antiemetic Medications. These include IV or intramuscular (IM) prochlorperazine and chlorpromazine or IV metoclopramide to relieve migraine pain, nausea and vomiting. Common side effects include dizziness and drowsiness.
- Diclofenac Potassium. This drug is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication that’s potent and approved for treating migraines. Side effects may include upset stomach, skin itching, rash, headache, bloating, dizziness or ringing in the ears.
- Botox. If you have migraines for more than 15 days each month, you may benefit from Botox injections. Side effects may include bruising, muscle weakness, dizziness, fatigue, fever, muscle stiffness and headaches.
- Lifestyle changes. Contributing factors, like diet and exercise, can serve as triggers for migraines. Alterations to your habits, such as through the following, can reduce your number of migraines each month:
- Avoiding certain foods.
- Maintaining a regular sleeping and eating schedule.
- Exercising regularly, including participating in yoga.
- Keeping hydrated.
- Using meditation and relaxing strategies.
Many doctors recommend tracking how often your migraines occur by using a digital headache diary to log your triggers, pain levels and symptoms. By doing this, you can help identify any potential patterns that come before your migraine and identify factors that could be contributing to the development of your migraines. These factors can help both you and your doctor develop a treatment plan.
Marijuana and Migraines
Although there is no cure for migraine headaches, medications can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. Of the drugs being used currently to treat migraine headaches, many aren’t helpful to prevent or relieve all the symptoms or they have significant side effects. But medical marijuana has been found by many patients to prevent or lessen the intolerable pain and other symptoms of this condition.
Additionally, recent research has shown that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main chemical component in marijuana, can help alleviate pain, nausea and vomiting associated with migraine headaches. THC can also inhibit the release of serotonin during an acute migraine attack, which reduces symptoms of pain.
Side effects of smoking cannabis include:
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate
- Impaired memory
- Loss of coordination
- Problems solving problems and thinking
- Increased appetite
- Red eyes
Some of these side effects, like paranoia or anxiety, are caused by strains with high amounts of THC which creates a psychoactive response. Many physicians recommend medical marijuana with small THC amounts to reduce these symptoms. Overall, patients find the benefits of medical cannabis outweigh its potential side effects.
How and Why Marijuana Is an Effective Treatment for Migraines
Over a dozen states allow the medical use of pot. Some states, including California and Connecticut, approve medical marijuana for the treatment of migraines.
Although marijuana for migraines has been used for many years, it’s only recently that scientists have figured out why it’s effective. One study looked at the effects of both ingested and inhaled weed in migraine sufferers and confirmed what other research suggests.
The study found:
- Around 40 percent of the 121 participants reported positive effects.
- A decrease in the number of migraines, which fell from 10.4 to 4.6 per month.
- On average, 19.8 percent of participants said that medical cannabis helped prevent their chronic headaches.
- Around 11.6 percent of patients said weed stopped their migraines altogether.
- Approximately 85 percent of participants reported medical marijuana helped them have fewer migraines each month.
Smoking or inhaling cannabis provided migraine sufferers with the fastest relief, but also reduced the number of migraines experienced. For the five million people in the U.S. who have at least one migraine each month that is a result that could change their life.
What Symptoms of Migraines Can Marijuana Treat?
Cannabinoids are the natural compounds found in marijuana. When you use cannabis, these cannabinoids enter your body looking for the receptors. They affect how your receptors work and calm down the pain signals.
They also help with:
- Muscle spasms
- Other qualifying conditions
Although migraine sufferers use different types of weed, they mostly inhale it to halt a migraine in progress. Edible marijuana products, while effective, takes longer to work, which is why most patients prefer to smoke medical cannabis. Smoking medical marijuana also allows you to control how much of the medicine you receive.
Best Strains of Marijuana to Use for Migraines
Certain strains of weed tend to work better than others when it comes to helping relieve migraine symptoms. For example, a strain known as Girl Scout Cookies is preferred by many smokers, whether they are just starting out or have smoked medicinal weed for a long time. Users typically say that it has a sweet scent and provides a euphoric, relaxing feeling. The strain has a THC percentage of between 17 and 28 percent.
Sour Diesel is another popular strain. It’s been around since the early 1990s. Also called “Sour D,” it gets its name from its pungent aroma that many liken to diesel fuel. It delivers a dreamy, energizing high as well as long-lasting relief from pain. Other strains that help for the symptoms of migraines include:
- Bubba Kush: Bubba Kush is an Indica strain that can help if you experience insomnia from your migraines. It leaves you happy, sleepy and relaxed. Bubba Kush may be used for pain, stress and depression.
- Purple Arrow: This hybrid strain provides uplifting euphoria and substantial pain relief making it a suitable choice for migraine sufferers who need quick relief without being too sedated like other Indica varieties.
- Granddaddy Purple: Another Indica strain for pain and insomnia, Granddaddy Purple relieves stress and increases your appetite since it can be hard to eat when you’re suffering from a migraine. It also works well for muscle spasms.
- Green Crack: A good sativa strain for patients fighting stress, fatigue and depression, Green Crack is applicable for daytime use.
- OG Kush: Many patients credit this hybrid strain for improving their migraine symptoms.
Medical marijuana doctors can often recommend a blend that will help with your specific symptoms. If you cope with nausea and lightheadedness, for example, they may suggest a medical marijuana strain with fewer psychoactive effects.
Best Methods of Marijuana Treatment for Migraines
Many ways exist for taking medical marijuana for migraines. Some experts believe that smoking a joint or using a vaporizer is best because the medicine works faster. You need to observe how you feel after you take cannabis in this way. Determine if you feel better, worse or about the same — and then adjust your dosage accordingly. Whether you smoke, vape or eat your cannabis, it’s essential to start slowly. If you take too much, you could increase the chance of another headache.
Here are a few ways you can use medical cannabis for migraines, and some of the pros and cons of each approach:
- Smoking – This is the way most people use medical marijuana for migraines. You simply take a certain amount of weed and either roll it into a joint or put it in a bong or pipe. This method gets the marijuana in your system faster than any other, and you’ll know pretty quickly whether you’ll need more. The downside to smoking is that it can affect your lungs, although research indicates that smoking weed does less damage to the lungs than smoking tobacco.
- Vaporizers — Using a vaporizer, or “vaping,” is like smoking but with fewer potentially adverse effects. While it causes less damage to the lungs, it can be quite expensive. You’ll also need to charge your vaporizer before using it, which takes more time.
- Eating — Many people choose to eat their cannabis rather than smoke it. The main disadvantage is that it takes quite a long time for the weed to take effect. Many people suffering from migraines also have a condition known as gastric stasis, which means it takes the stomach longer to empty its contents. As a result, individuals with this problem may not absorb the amount of marijuana they need to help with their migraine.
- THC capsules — Marinol is THC in pill form. Some people swear by it, while others say the effectiveness of the pill depends on when they last ate and how well their digestive tract processed the medication.
Your state’s medical marijuana laws may limit how you can use medical weed. Some states, for example, don’t allow smoking, even though it’s an effective method for migraines because of their quick onset. Read up on your state’s laws beforehand, or ask your doctor, to make sure you’re compliant.
Find a Medical Cannabis Doctor to Treat Your Migraines
Across the U.S., states are making it possible for the more than 11 million people in the U.S. who suffer from severe migraines, to access medical weed. If you cope with chronic headaches and traditional treatments aren’t helping you, consider medical marijuana.
To learn more about cannabis for migraines, and get your ideal strain, search for a medical marijuana dispensary or doctor. You don’t have to live with the pain of migraines.