Migraine is a severe headache that lasts for hours or days, often accompanied by disturbance of vision and nausea and vomiting. The attacks usually re-occur and can be brought on by stress, certain types of food, bright lights, loud noise and even strong smells. About 20 % of the popluation has experienced a migraine attack and women are more likely to experience them. A person’s first attack usually happens before age 20, and rarely after age 50.
Drugs can either be used to prevent long-term re-occurance, to cut short attacks, or for pain relief once an attack has started. 10-20 % of sufferers get no relief from these drugs and many more get incomplete relief or suffer serious side effects. Cannabis was highly regarded as a treatment for migraine in the 19th century. Dr J.B. Mattison wrote in 1891 that the treating migraine was the most important use of cannabis. Reviewing his own and earlier physicians’ experiences, he concluded that cannabis not only blocks the pain, but prevents attacks. In 1913 William Osler expressed his agreement, saying that cannabis was probably the most satisfactory remedy for migraine. Yet there is no mention of the effect of cannabis on migraine in 20th century medical literature. Individuals have experimented with cannabis however. They report that smoking a little amount of cannabis just as the early-warning signs of an attack (such as flickering vision) appear will prevent the attack from continuing. This may just be another analgesic effect of cannabis (combined with its anti-nausea effect), or it may be actually effecting the unknown biochemistry of migraine in some manner.
The testimony of Carol Miller is particulary revealing because all the women in her family suffer from migraine. Carol has been controlling her migraines for 18 years with cannabis………
“I first experienced a migraine in a classroom when I was fourteen. The sparkling, flickering visual effects, which were curious at first, consumed me so that I could not see the blackboard. I asked to be excused, let myself into the nurse’s room and vomited for several hours before my mother came to get me.
Although the headaches continued with some regularity it wasn’t until college that I was given the diagnosis of migraine. The college infirmary prescribed Ecotrin [coated asprin] which helped somewhat with the headache but not with the visual effects or the nausea. It also gave me tremendous heartburn.
One time the pain was so severe that they gave me an injection of Demerol [a synthetic opiate], which pretty much wiped out the pain but left me very lightheaded. At times I took a banana-flavoured syrup [probably codeine] which made me very sleepy. I remember that it was difficult to make it through my final exams because I was so lightheaded, and that my asthma got very bad during this period.
After graduation, while working at Indiana University, I saw a private physician who prescribed Mudrane [a combination of ephdrine and phenobarbital], which he warned was habit forming. I quit taking them because they seemed to make my blood pressure so low I could hardly work. After moving to San Francisco I was given Darvon [another opiate], but I took it only briefly because it gave me a rash.
I had been taking asprin with codeine but found it constipated me terribly. When I became pregnant with my first child, I was very concerned about medication. A friend told me I couldn’t take any medication safely and suggested I rely on herbs. I was studying herbal healing and preparing for a natural birth, so this sounded right to me. I tried scullap tea, a light valerian and chamomile tea, and then lavender. The teas were soothing and the slower pace of life after quitting work helped; migraines became rare.
Several years later the migraines returned, and my husband said he had read that marihuana was good for headaches. I was amazed. Two hits and a short rest completely warded off the nausea and headache. As soon as I noticed flickering visuals that forewarned me of an approaching migraine, I could take a little cannbis and a short nap and the migraine would not develop at all. I was usually ready to go back to work in half an hour. It gave me a feeling of tremendous power to be finally in such control of my migraines.
In the eighteen years since I began using cannabis to relieve migraines I have been caught away from home several times without my herb. Once I tried taking Tyenol and found it helped a little with the pain but not at all with the nausea or the visual effects. Both of my older daughters (now 17 and 21) also get occasional migraines, which first appeared when they began to menstruate. Both get tremendous relief from cannabis herb. My mother suffers from severe headaches, but she has never used cannabis because it is illegal. She has a horrible time with medications prescribed for her – nausea, constipation, high blood pressure. I often tell her when marihuana is legal and she uses it for the first time and realizes how she has suffered unnecessarily all these years, she is going to be really furious.
UKCIA member Terwur suffers from classical migraine. In this account he explains that cannabis aborts his attacks, without the side-effect of getting “stoned”…… ” I have suffered from classical migraine for the last 15 years, since I was 14. The symptoms include profound visual disturbances, acute depression, numbness and “out of body” feelings, intense throbbing headache, extreme sensitivity to light, nausea, and a general feeling that someone is stabbing me in the eyes with sharpened red hot ice cubes! My attacks are caused by stress and sometimes hit me on consecutive days. Other times I have gained remission for up to 3 months before another cycle starts. I have tried, I think, all the over-the-counter treatments, and visited my doctor on several occasions. He does not know much about migraine and is wary of prescribing many drugs purely for their potential side effects. My normal response to the onset of another attack is to take 4 paracetamol followed by at least another 2 every hour thereafter. This, unfortunately, only kills about 60% of the pain and does nothing for the other symptoms. There has to be a limit to the number of times I can repeat this before measurable liver damage starts to develop. I have tried other painkillers with poor results. A couple of years ago someone suggested trying cannabis to control my condition. I read as much as I could find on the Internet and discovered much about its mode of action in the initial stages of the condition. I obtained a small amount of cannabis resin and waited for my next attack. I didn’t have to wait long and as soon as I was sure that an aura was building up I smoked a tiny sliver of the drug and waited. The aura started to fade faster than usual and my mood failed to drop significantly. The “out-of-body” feelings and numbness faded and within an hour I was left wondering if I’d actually had an attack at all! I didn’t take enough of the drug to get “stoned” leading me to believe that the therapeutic dose, in my case, is safe to use without the “side effect” of getting high. Since then I have used cannabis on a regular basis to relieve my migraines and no longer dread the onset of an attack. Just yesterday afternoon I aborted yet another attack and after half an hour or so was able to carry on working well into the evening. I hope my testimonial is of interest to you in your fight to get cannabis recognised as the important and safe medicine it really is.
Migraine attacks may be related to the neurotransmitter serotonin. In 1985 Volfe et al. reported that THC inhibited the release of serotonin from the blood of migraine sufferers during an attack (but not at other times). This could be a clue to future research, which is obviously needed.