My Radical Migraine-Banishing Acupuncture Success

I (mostly) beat my lifelong battle against migraines.

Jan 4, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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More than a few xoJane ladies get migraines, and I am no exception. But I might be one of the few who has reached the other side known as life after migraines.

I didn’t even know that was a place, a way of living, or something to consider until my acupuncturist used the phrase more than four years ago. Then again, four years ago, I also didn’t know I’d have someone (and later, plural someones) to refer to as my personal healer.

It started the way it always does. A believer converted me.

When I met my good friend Becky during my grad school years, we bonded over the fact that we shared a psychiatrist and sometimes had a really hard time just getting through the day.

When I whined that my unending battle with migraines had forever caused me to miss school, work and social engagements, she suggested I try acupuncture. Chinese medicine had drastically reduced her chronic pain. Since we already saw the same shrink and compared notes on beating anxiety, we figured one more shared healer could only further empower us.

But I’d had migraines since the tender age of 8. My paternal grandpa also had them, and I’ve read the lit about genetics and migraines. I don’t think I’d ever even entertained the idea that I could NOT have migraines.

I thought that, like grandpa, a lifetime of nightmarish headaches was my doomed fate.

It didn’t help that my young life was full of family drama and plagued by adults who didn’t believe my pain was real. (Talk about exacerbating my condition.)

If they did believe me, it was within the context of assuming I’d always be a migraine sufferer, forced to gracefully accept my burden or forever be a nuisance.

By the time I got to college, my pain was unmanageable. After a three-day migraine, I ended up at the student health clinic. An empathic doc (and fellow migraine sufferer) diagnosed me, finally (!), and gave me a prescription for sumatriptans (scary but oh-so-effective).

I even went to a proper headache clinic and was tested for everything you can imagine. Eye exams, reflex tests and an MRI later, I was kindly told that I was probably just a stressed-out gal who would always have to suck it up. That sounds worse than it was, but I was also never given a lot of hope for recovery.

In my experience, that just isn’t the language used around chronic pain in Western medicine.

When I got to grad school a few years later, I changed my diet, cut out (most) caffeine and (all) alcohol (not that it was ever much of an issue), and began the process of getting rid of some interpersonal toxicity in my life. I felt better but not great.

For instance, jet lag made me seriously ill, and I have a whole list of hilariously sad stories about the places where I’ve puked in public after disembarking from a long flight.

Toward the end of grad school, when I met my pal Becky, I knew I was about to lose my health insurance and the extremely helpful co-pay on the otherwise $45-per-pill meds ($45 PER PILL!) and occasional ER visits that kept my painful life manageable.

Thus, I was feeling desperate when my friend nudged me towards the needles.

That isn’t to say I did it on a whim. It’s just that when you feel desperate, you’ll try anything and expect nothing.

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And so, when I started acupuncture, I didn’t really believe. I wasn’t skeptical; I was ambivalent. Needles to move my qi around were simply one more possibility on an increasingly short list. Also, I wondered, what is qi? I had a lot to learn.

I later realized that in one way, I was primed for acupuncture. In psychotherapy, I’d learned to use words like “grounded” and talked about being in my body and not just my head. Turns out, acupuncture is very much about those same things. Listening to your body, slowing down, being kind to your whole self.

In addition to weekly needle treatments, my ridiculously gentle acupuncturist prescribed an herbal powder drink -- my own personal formula! -- and used hot glass cups on my back to relieve tension and pain. 

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Slowly but surely, with no fanfare and initially with little evidence of a pattern, my headaches got better. First I went from two headaches a week to two a month. Then I was down to one migraine that coincided with my period.

As I progressed, I eventually scaled down to one or two treatments a month, then took nearly a year off from treatment altogether. During that time, I had so few and such unremarkable headaches that I can’t even really remember them.

These days, I’m back in twice-monthly treatment for stress, but my migraines are still mostly nonexistent.

To be clear, acupuncture isn’t a magic bullet.* It takes time and patience (and obviously money**), and some people don’t respond to it at all. In a culture where we (myself most definitely included) go for quick results and expect things to always get better, it’s not fair to say that every ailment can be treated and/or cured, nor can results come swiftly. I feel obligated to say that sometimes our collective pursuit of such things can be dangerous.

When my acupuncturist said, “There is life after migraines,” I knew that she meant my life could be better overall, that the frequency of and pain associated with my headaches could lessen over time. It did. But I think I’m one of the lucky ones and don’t think we should all expect magical cures to centuries-old conditions -- even if we choose to explore centuries-old traditional medicine.

After months of few or no migraines, I accepted that acupuncture actually works for me. It was also a scary thing to believe, the evidence that I might be better, that I might have the privilege of living a new fearless sort of way. It took me a long time to process, but once I did, I triumphantly claimed my hard-won victory and wanted to share the good news.

When someone asks, I often say that acupuncture changed my life. I’m not proselytizing. I’m just so happy! Even a few years into my newfound existence, I’m still so relieved!

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Yes, I still get an occasional headache. But these days, they’re almost always just that: a mere headache. Sometimes I can’t even tell the difference. Until a few years ago, I’d never had a normal headache. Now, when OTC pain pills don’t work relatively quickly, I know I might have a migraine on my hands.

But I don’t have to hail a cab or start telling people around me that we have a frighteningly limited time frame to handle this. I take some drugs and meander home.

After a lifetime of extraordinary migraine pain, I never take it for granted that popping two ibuprofen can actually make a headache go away.

These days, I see my outstanding local acupuncturist twice a month to help me with PMS pain and mood swings, back pain, and stress and anxiety. It’s definitely an investment in my health, and I haven’t seen a proper doctor in several years. There’s never a need. Again, I’m ridiculously lucky that preventative health care is all I currently require and that I can invest in what works for me.

Results not typical. I am not a doctor. All those obvious disclaimers aside, I ended up gaining a lot because I had nothing left to lose.

*To be fair, I tried a lot of other alternative therapies after my acupuncture success. I’ve dabbled in reiki, reflexology, and craniosacral therapy. To avoid disparaging the gifted folks who work in these disciplines and the good people who are healed by them, let’s just say I was personally underwhelmed by all of these options and their purported results. It should also be said that I didn’t love every acupuncturist who has treated me. Like anything else, I found the right person (three times) and stuck with her until my location changed.

**Some insurance plans will cover acupuncture, though mine never have. (Depending on what you take, regular acupuncture as preventative treatment beats the pants off the cost of prescription drugs, for reals.) Also, if you live in an awesome city with an awesome community acupuncture clinic and are the least bit curious, GO THERE. You may end up in a group treatment room, but sharing the experience can be sort of cool. It’s also markedly cheaper than private treatment, cutting the cost in half or by a third in some places. I’ve paid between $50 and $80 for acupuncture treatments in three cities on two continents. I’ve been told community acupuncture in the States can run as low as $15 per session.