Chiropractic Care for Migraines: Benefits, Effectiveness, and More

Chiropractic is a promising treatment method for people with migraine headaches. This is especially true when used in combination with other treatments. Although clinicians do not commonly recommend it for treating migraine headaches, some chiropractic therapies may be effective for treating acute migraine episodes. 

Migraine is a neurological condition that can cause debilitating, throbbing headaches, usually on one side of the head.

Symptoms of pain, tiredness, numbness, irritability, and temporary vision loss may accompany migraine. According to a 2020 review of surveys, migraine has occurred in around 15.9% of adults in the United States.

Chiropractic treatment usually involves manual therapy targeted at treating musculoskeletal problems. Chiropractors must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) degree, pass the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners exam, and obtain a state license to practice in the U.S.

This article will discuss chiropractic therapy for migraine headaches and the role of a chiropractor in treating a patient with migraine. It will also explore chiropractic during pregnancy and for children, its effectiveness, and risks and side effects.

Can a chiropractor treat migraines?

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Chiropractors may help treat migraines. According to one study, up to 75% of people with migraine headaches may experience symptoms like neck stiffness, muscle tension, and pain.

There is limited evidence that chiropractors effectively treat migraine, but available evidence shows that some chiropractic therapies offer promising results for migraine treatment.

An older 2011 systematic review of clinical trials indicated that chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy might be as effective as topiramate and propranolol medications in the prevention management of migraine headaches. However, researchers from the review found that many of the trials had a low score for the quality of methodology. They suggest that further trials are necessary to better support these specific effects of chiropractic.

Further research has observed potential beneficial results. A 2019 case review observed that a subset of chiropractic care methods led to participants reporting reductions in headache and pain intensity, neck pain, and frequency of headache. Participants also simultaneously received other treatment methods alongside chiropractic and reported that the chiropractic treatment contributed to the positive outcomes.

Researchers from the case review still outline the need for an improved understanding of chiropractic and neurological care. This includes how to incorporate chiropractic into tailored patient plans and how to integrate it into traditional medical models.

On the other hand, a 2016 clinical trial suggests that the effects of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy for migraine may be a result of the placebo effect.

Migraine does not yet have a cure, and many pharmacological treatments for migraine can have side effects that can be difficult to cope with. Chiropractic may be an option for people who prefer to avoid medication and seek complementary or integrative therapies.

Learn more here about integrative medicine and how it may help your health.

How chiropractic adjustment helps migraine headaches 

Chiropractic therapy may involve soft tissue therapies, spinal manipulation, exercise, and treatment of posture.

A 2019 meta-analysis observed that the spinal manipulation used by chiropractors reduced the number of days on which participants experienced migraine, as well as migraine pain and intensity. 

Chiropractic for migraine will aim to optimize the health of the neuromusculoskeletal system and reduce pain. Researchers theorize that spinal manipulative therapy may activate pain inhibitory pathways that are responsible for pain signals in the brain. Additionally, reducing associated muscle tension and correcting any strain from posture that affects the soft tissues may reduce musculoskeletal pain.

Chiropractors typically conduct physical and neurological examinations to test for reflex movement, nerve changes, and pain spread.

A chiropractor can offer treatments such as:

  • myofascial release therapy
  • massages to relieve joint and muscle tension
  • trigger point therapies that focus on tense areas in the body
  • lifestyle suggestions such as advice on the ideal posture to adopt, dietary changes, and advice on the type of exercise a patient should do

Some experts believe that taking a multifaceted approach — for example, reducing muscle tension and targeting diet and lifestyle — may improve migraine symptoms.

How often should you go to a chiropractor for migraine headaches?

You may need to see a chiropractor more often when you first start treatment.

How often you will see your doctor of chiropractic will depend on your individual needs and condition.

It is advisable to discuss this with your chiropractor, as they will be better positioned to tailor a program of care, including other treatment methods, to your personal needs. 

To ensure a chiropractor is appropriately trained and licensed to practice in the U.S., you can check the FCLB licensing board. As practitioners’ licenses must also comply with specific state laws, it is important to check that they have their license at the state level for the area where you live. Check with your state’s health licensing board to find out whether a chiropractor has a valid license in your state.

Chiropractic and hormonal migraine headaches 

Some people experience hormonal migraine during periods of hormonal fluctuation, such as before or during menstruation, during menopause, or for anyone on hormone replacement therapy.

Chiropractic cannot treat the underlying cause of hormonal migraine headaches. However, it may be able to relieve some of the symptoms.

For instance, massage and prescribed stretches may help to manage the symptoms.

Chiropractic during pregnancy

A pregnant person may want to consider complementary or alternative therapies for migraine during pregnancy because there are concerns over the use of certain preventive medications during pregnancy.

However, many people also question whether chiropractic is safe during pregnancy.

There is limited research on this. A 2019 review of chiropractic care for pregnant people and fetuses suggests that chiropractic may produce beneficial results during pregnancy for some symptoms of pain. Additionally, the review states that some researchers consider chiropractic techniques that focus on high velocity, low amplitude spinal manipulation to be safe for pregnant people.

Additionally, an older study published in 2009 indicates that chiropractic for treating migraine headaches in pregnant people may in some cases be safe and effective. The study suggests that spinal manipulation, alongside other add-on therapies, improved migraine headache symptoms in a 24-year-old pregnant female.

However, the 2019 review also acknowledges that in rare cases, serious adverse effects are possible. As such, researchers suggest that the specific technique of spinal manipulation in chiropractic may not be safe and that further research is necessary to understand the safety of spinal manipulation during pregnancy and postpartum.

Chiropractic for children

There is less information from research regarding the use of chiropractic for treating headaches, such as migraine headaches, in children.

However, one 2020 clinical trial suggests that chiropractic spinal manipulation in children resulted in fewer headaches and a perception of improvement. There were minor side effects only. However, when headaches did occur, chiropractic did not lower the intensity of pain.

Researchers suggest that

chiropractic spinal manipulation could be a valuable treatment option for children with regular headaches. This is because the treatment is easy to apply to children, may have low costs, and usually has minor side effects.

Researchers also note that if clinicians can develop an effective treatment for children experiencing recurrent headaches, it may have significant positive effects in avoiding a lifetime of recurring problems.

Chiropractic treatment for other headaches

Research suggests chiropractic may have a beneficial effect on headaches in general. The 2020 clinical trial into children experiencing headaches found beneficial results of chiropractic without controlling for specific headache types.

Chiropractic may additionally be useful for treating the following types of headaches.

Tension-type headaches are very common and can range from mild to severe head pain. They are often a primary headache disorder, meaning they are not the sign of an underlying condition.

Common chiropractic therapeutic methods for the management of tension headaches include soft tissue therapies in the neck and shoulder areas, such as:

  • massage
  • myofascial release
  • stretching
  • trigger point therapy

Cervicogenic headaches are pain felt in the head that comes from a source in the neck or cervical spine. They are secondary headaches, meaning that they are the result of another underlying illness or physical issue.

Chiropractic therapy for cervicogenic headache management often includes:

  • prescription exercises for the neck, shoulders, or both
  • spinal manipulation
  • soft tissue therapies of the neck or shoulder area, such as:
    • massage
    • myofascial release
    • stretching
    • trigger point therapy

Like all treatments, there may be some risks and side effects associated with chiropractic care.

A 2017 review found that about 23–83% of people who underwent spinal manipulation for migraine experienced mild to moderate benign side effects such as numbness or tingles in the upper limbs, headache, pain, and discomfort in the bones, tendons, and muscles. However, the effects typically resolved after 24 hours.

More severe risks include musculoskeletal damage such as a slipped disc, or stroke.

Some people with certain conditions, such as osteoporosis or a physical abnormality or injury to the body, should get advice from specialist physicians before contacting a chiropractor due to the risk of adverse effects.

While chiropractic is generally safe when performed by a trained and licensed chiropractor, it is always best to get advice from your doctor on whether it is safe for you to see a chiropractor. 

Additionally, your symptoms may be the result of another condition that needs diagnosis and treatment from a medical doctor.

When to seek medical help

Headache is a common symptom people may experience, especially after a stressful day.

However, if you start experiencing recurring headaches with additional symptoms, you may be experiencing a migraine headache.

Additionally, some causes of head pain may include other serious conditions that require immediate medical attention.

Seek medical help if you start having severe headaches with symptoms such as:

  • head pain with a throbbing or pulsing sensation
  • pain on one side of the head especially
  • nausea
  • weakness
  • light and sound sensitivity
  • changes to vision such as vision loss or double vision
  • confusion
  • fever
  • head pain following injury to the head, neck, or back

Seek medical help for any worsening symptoms or pain after chiropractic treatment.

Migraine headaches can cause debilitating pain and other symptoms that can affect a person’s everyday life. They may need treatment to go away.

Chiropractic is a complementary or alternative treatment that may help alleviate or treat symptoms of migraine. There is researched evidence that chiropractic may help improve migraines in areas such as migraine frequency, intensity, and neck pain.

However, more research is necessary to support chiropractic as a common treatment and better understand all implications of chiropractic across many variables.

Discuss your symptoms with a doctor before contacting a chiropractor. Your doctor can help identify the cause of your symptoms and give you advice on whether chiropractic can help you.

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