When you’ve got a headache that just won’t go away, what’s your go-to fix? If you’ve been diagnosed with migraines and throw out a Facebook query to your family and friends, pressure points for migraines are sure to come up. But let’s face it … the majority of migraine remedy suggestions tend to fall into two camps: old wives’ tales and science-backed options that you really need to follow up on. So can figuring out pressure points for migraines really help? Here’s the good news: There’s actual science behind the idea that manipulating pressure points or trigger points can help manage your migraines. In America, 28 million people over the age of 12 suffer from migraines, and studies have been launched to find everything from nausea relief to pain relief. Although you may be able to find some relief at home using pressure points on your body, trying to use them without proper knowledge could just irritate your muscles. So what do you need to know about pressure points before you start poking around?
What causes migraines?
Before you start digging in, you need to know what you’re working with. The word migraine gets thrown around a lot, but from a medical perspective, the National Library of Medicine defines a migraine as a type of headache that typically occurs with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound. A throbbing pain is felt on only one side of the head in typical cases. “It is not uncommon for some people to concentrate stress in one part of the body,” explains Nada Milosavljevic, MD, a physician and faculty member at Harvard Medical School and founder of Sage Tonic. “One typical area is the head, and the symptom is the all-too-familiar headache. For some people, headaches are easily triggered and recurring, causing distraction, irritability, and the tendency to rely on medications to feel normal. For others, intermittent migraines can drive them to distraction, blocking out other activities for several hours or even whole days.” Treatments for migraines vary from daily medications to pharmaceuticals that can be taken orally when someone senses the headache coming on. But pills aren’t the only options out there. More natural remedies can be helpful for some patients, Milosavljevic says. “Behavioral, stress reduction, and integrative therapies like acupressure, biofeedback, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and physical therapy can be beneficial,” she notes. One of the most popular of those natural remedies is pressure point massage, sometimes known as pressure point manipulation or acupressure.
Pressure Points for Migraines
This form of massage treatment focuses on myofascial trigger points in the muscles, says Michele Macomber, a certified myofascial trigger point therapist at Pain Free Maryland. “Myofascial trigger points form in muscles that have become too tight, are injured, or are in spasm,” Macomber explains. “There can be any number of them in any individual person, depending on the events of their life. Trigger points can form at birth, every time a child gets a bump, any time an adult gets a repetitive strain injury or has an accident, any time someone spends countless work hours in a posture of poor ergonomics.” “A migraine sufferer may need medication, changes in habits or foods, and to avoid perfumes, smoke, and chemicals as well, but the tension aspect of the headache, whether true migraine or not, is easily and effectively treated with myofascial trigger point therapy and stretch,” she adds. That usually means calling someone like Macomber to help relieve those tight muscles causing a headache. Medical practitioners have developed cold lasers, for example, a relatively painless procedure that can be used only in a medical setting to tackle pressure points and relieve migraine symptoms. There are also compression techniques that can be done in an office setting to quiet the muscle pain that can lead to a migraine. Sometimes a practitioner will use a needle in the spot (think acupuncture) or compression via massage, putting pressure on the pressure point, which triggers the body to send blood to that area and signals the body to release the pain. The goal is to eventually signal the body to relax the pressure point, creating relief for both the muscles and the headaches.
Pressure Point Treatment at Home
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get some migraine relief at home using pressure points. With some 400 acupressure or trigger points in the body, there are spots that may supply relief if you can find them. “With a bit of practice and some initial guidance, a migraine sufferer can readily stimulate acupressure points on their own,” Milosavljevic says, “especially those on the face and arms, which allow for easy access.” In addition to providing migraine relief, pressure point massage can help relieve the stress associated with a migraine attack. Milosavljevic recommends these two to get you started:
This trigger point is located on the top side of the hand in the web between thumb and index finger. “To find the point, squeeze the thumb against the base of the index finger,” Milosavljevic says. “The point is located on the highest point of the bulge (fleshy prominence) of the muscle, level with the end of the crease.”
Sometimes called the “third eye point,” this trigger point is located on the face. You can find it midway between the medial ends of your eyebrows, right in the center of your forehead. To get relief from at-home manipulation of the pressure points for your migraines, William Charschan, a chiropractor and owner of Charschan Chiropractic and Sports Injury Associates in North Brunswick, New Jersey, suggests pushing firmly on the pressure point for about a minute, using the index finger or index and middle fingers together. The pain should slowly ebb, but the pressure can be repeated as needed. The amount of pressure you exert on the trigger point is up to you, although the feeling should be a “good hurt” rather than an excruciating pain. If it’s the latter, stop! If pressure point massage alone doesn’t work, Macomber suggests incorporating heat and stretching. “These are not a sufficient substitute for treatment, but until and after they get treatment, stretches may help reduce tension and pain,” she explains, but she quickly adds one note of warning. “Stretching far enough to feel pain makes muscles reflexively tighten up and can exacerbate the problem.” To avoid this, don’t stretch if it is painful, and never stretch as far as the joint will allow. “You should feel a comfortable, pleasant stretchy feeling, but never an extreme stretch sensation or pain,” Macomber says. Heat can also be added via a heating pad placed directly on the neck, shoulders, or other pressure points to soothe the irritated muscles.
It’s important to follow up with your physician, even if at-home treatment alleviates the migraine pain. “The problem with treatment is that without understanding or relieving the common triggers, migraines will continue to occur and may be frequent,” Charschan says. “Also, there is often a genetic link to those who get migraines, which may be linked to body style.” “We not only look like our parents but walk like them and hold ourselves like them,” Charschan continues. “In other words, our mechanical signatures are often quite similar.” For example, you may have your dad’s feet, which predispose you to back issues or asymmetrical body mechanics that create stress, which pulls on one side of the neck. That can be a migraine trigger and is often a main reason that patients who receive chiropractic treatment for migraines see improvement,” Charschan sys. “Medically, they look at the mechanism of the migraine and treat it with medicine but ignore the mechanical causes which can often be eliminated or improved with chiropractic manipulation and soft tissue treatment,” he says. The good news? Regardless of the cause of migraines, science points to the possibility of long-term relief with the help of appropriate treatment.