In the United States, 13% of the U.S. population, or 38 million people, suffer from migraine headaches. According to the Migraine Research Foundation1, the impact of this chronic disorder is staggering.
- 85% of migraine sufferers are women.
- Migraines are the 3rd most common illness in the world and the 6th most disabling.
- Migraine healthcare and lost productivity costs are estimated to be around $36 billion annually.
Migraines: More than a Bad Headache
A typical headache, or tension headache, is typically felt throughout the head. Many describe the sensation as having a headband tightened around the skull. Tension headaches result from muscle contractions in the head and neck which can cause moderate pain for a few hours to a few days. Symptoms of a typical tension headache may come on suddenly with no warning and are caused by triggers such as stress, anxiety, depression, dehydration, hunger, fatigue, or sunlight.
Migraines, on the other hand, are described as a throbbing, relentless pain in the front or side of the head, accompanied with other debilitating side effects including impaired vision, lights or auras in eyesight, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, and extreme fatigue. Migraines are thought to be initiated by chemical or hormonal changes.
Unlike tension headaches, migraines often come with warning signs before an attack. Patients frequently report seeing visual auras which may including flashing lights, wavy or jagged lines, dark spots, or even sparkles. Problems with speech and hearing, dizziness, and vertigo, along with changes in mood, confusion, and weakness are all symptoms which make migraines more than just a headache.
Traditional Migraine Treatment
Migraines are typically treated with medications2, either to relieve pain when a migraine occurs or as a preventative measure to help reduce the occurrence of migraines altogether. Pain medications prescribed for migraine treatment include:
- Pain-Relieving Migraine Treatment Medications
- OTC drugs include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and combination drugs that contain caffeine. Unfortunately, they can lead to ulcers, GI bleeding, and overuse.
- Triptans are a family of drugs which constrict blood vessels and block pain signals. Triptans can cause nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and weakness. They are not recommended for anyone at risk of stroke or heart attack.
- Ergots are a combination of ergotamine and caffeine. Less effective than triptans, they may even worsen certain symptoms.
- Opiates may be prescribed if patients have adverse reactions to other medications. They are highly addictive and dangerous long-term.
- Glucocorticoids like prednisone may also be prescribed for pain but can cause serious side effects like sleep disorders, skin issues, and weight gain.
If migraines are chronic, occurring for more than 12 hours, 4 or more times per month, and traditional pain medications aren’t working, doctors may look to other medications to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines before they occur.
- Preventative Migraine Treatment Medications
- Cardiovascular drugs, including beta blockers and calcium channel blockers, may reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches, but they can take several weeks before recognizing any improvements.
- Antidepressants, specifically tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, work by affecting serotonin levels and other chemicals in the brain. SSRI’s, on the other hand, may worsen headaches.
- Anti-seizure medications such as Depacon and Topamax may reduce the frequency of migraines; however, they can cause serious side effects like tremor, weight gain, hair loss, and memory and concentration issues.
- Botox has been advertised to relieve migraines by injecting the neurotoxin into the muscles of the neck and forehead, but effects are only temporary and require repeating every three months.
As with many conditions, medications work well for some, but others may be resistant to treatments or the drugs themselves may cause more harm than good. Long-term use of many medications will cause liver and kidney damage. Risks associated with these drugs have left many scrambling for safer, more natural alternatives like acupuncture or marijuana for migraines.
Studies on Marijuana for Migraine Treatment
Recently, a study3 presented in Amsterdam at the 3rd Congress of the European Academy of Neurology showed the active ingredients in marijuana may be more effective at reducing the frequency of migraines than traditional migraine treatment options. In the study, 127 participants who suffered from migraines or cluster headaches (severe headaches centered around one eye) were treated with a combination of the cannabinoids THC and CBD in two phases.
During the first phase, participants were given various dosages of THC and CBD to discover the most effective dose to treat migraines. The best results, achieved at 200mg of THC and CBD daily for three months, showed a 55% decrease in pain.
During the second portion of testing, migraine sufferers were divided into two groups with one group receiving THC/CBD supplementation, while the other received 25mg of amitriptyline, an antidepressant traditionally used to treat migraines. Cluster headache participants were divided and medicated with either THC/CBD or a beta blocker commonly used to treat headaches.
Results showed the cannabinoid therapy outperformed traditional migraine treatments in reducing the frequency and pain in migraine sufferers, whereas it was only effective for cluster headache patients if they had experienced migraines earlier in life.
However, this study wasn’t the first of its kind. A year earlier, researchers at Colorado State University published4 their findings after conducting similar tests on 121 participants who also showed a significant reduction in the frequency of headaches for those using marijuana for migraines daily.
Another survey5 from 2015 conducted by Care by Design, a cannabis company, involved more than 600 individuals. Respondents reported CBD-rich cannabis was remarkably effective at treating headaches and migraines.
Clearly, with the amount of anecdotal and clinical information available, medical marijuana is showing strong potential in the future of migraine treatment. As legalization continues to sweep across the nation, research will continue, and many more people will discover the miraculous benefits of using marijuana for migraines.
1 Migraine Research Foundation.
Migraine Facts. Migraine Research Foundation. [Online] 2017.
2 Mayo Clinic.
Migraine: Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic.
3 3rd EAN Congress Amsterdam 2017, Abstract.
Nicolodi, et al. s.l. : EAN Congress Press Office, 2017.
4 Effects of Medical Marijuana on Migraine Headache Frequency in an Adult Population. Rhyne DN, Anderson SL, Gedde M, Borgelt LM. May 2016, Pharmacotherapy.
5 Care by Design. CBD Patient Survey. 2015.