If you’ve ever been to a chiropractor and found your migraine attacks seemed less severe or frequent afterward, you’re part of an anecdotal group of people who feel that chiropractic adjustments may be a migraine management tool.
If you’ve heard those reports and wondered about trying it yourself, you probably have plenty of questions. Does it actually work as a migraine treatment? Is it safe? Could it actually make things worse? This article will help you find answers to all your questions about chiropractic for migraine.
Can Chiropractic Adjustments Treat Migraine?
We found five clinical studies that have investigated the potential effectiveness of chiropractic for chronic and migraine headaches.
Effects on Migraine Frequency, Duration, and Disability
Published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in 2000, one study conducted a randomized controlled trial of 127 migraine sufferers. The patients were divided into three groups. One group received chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy, another group received a sham treatment (where the provider goes through all the motions without actually administering the treatment), and a third group received a control group intervention.
In this study, the chiropractic group showed significant improvement in migraine frequency, duration, and disability compared to the other two groups.
Another randomized controlled trial published by the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics included 218 migraine patients who were divided into four groups.
One group received spinal manipulation only. The second group received amitriptyline (a common migraine medication) only. Group three received a combination of both the manipulation and amitriptyline. Group four only received a control group intervention.
The results? Both the spinal manipulation group and the combination group who also received the drug showed significant improvement in migraine frequency, duration, and disability compared to the other two groups.
Impact on Frequency, Intensity, and Duration
A systematic review of manual therapies looked at 21 randomized controlled trials on the effectiveness of various manual therapies, including chiropractic treatment, for migraine. This review revealed that manual therapies, particularly spinal manipulation, were helpful in reducing the frequency, intensity, and duration of migraine headaches.
Reducing Frequency, Intensity, and Disability
Yet another randomized controlled trial conducted at a private practice in a college clinic and in the local community looked at 24 adults with chronic cervicogenic headache. Three groups were created. One group received 0-4 visits of chiropractic care. Another group received 5-9 visits, and one received 10-14 visits.
All three groups showed significant improvement in the frequency, intensity, and disability associated with their headaches, but the group that received 10-14 visits improved the most.
For your reference, Cervicogenic headache is caused by a problem in the neck, such as cervical misalignment, injury, or muscle tension. The pain is usually felt on one side of the head and neck, and may resonate down to the shoulder or arm.Because there are some similar symptoms, cervicogenic headaches are sometimes mistaken for migraines or tension headaches. However, cervicogenic headaches are typically triggered by certain movements or positions of the neck and tend to respond better to treatments that target the underlying neck problem.
Lowering Frequency and Intensity of Chronic Headache
Researchers conducted a systematic review of 22 randomized controlled trials on the effectiveness of spinal manipulation for chronic headache. The review found that spinal manipulation was more effective than a variety of other treatments, including medication and physical therapy, in reducing the frequency and intensity of chronic headache.
Surveys of experts have also investigated the use of chiropractic as a migraine treatment. Here’s a run-down.
One survey by Rand Corporation gathered experts in chiropractic, neurology, and primary care medicine. They reviewed published literature to see how chiropractic care like neck manipulation might be used to treat neck pain and headache.
They looked at over 500 relevant articles and concluded that these techniques were suitable for certain types of headache. They also created a set of guidelines for using them in this way.
The Journal of Headache and Pain published another survey of a group of headache specialists. They investigated the use of multidisciplinary treatment for primary headaches, including migraine.
The survey found that a combination of pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments, including chiropractic care, was effective at reducing the frequency and severity of migraine headaches, as well as headaches related to medication overuse.
Is the Evidence Weak or Strong?
The clinical evidence for chiropractic for migraines is mixed and varies in strength.
As you’ve learned in this article, some studies have shown that chiropractic adjustments can be effective in reducing the frequency and severity of migraine.
However, others have found no significant difference between chiropractic treatment and placebo. For example, several systematic reviews have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine that chiropractic for migraine is effective. Here are a couple of examples.
One systematic review looked at random controlled trials. Those trials suggested that massage therapy, physiotherapy, relaxation and spinal adjustment might be as effective as certain drugs. However, researchers noted that the reviewed trials had a lot of shortcomings. They suggested future, well-conducted RCTs on these therapies for migraine.
Another systematic review published in PubMed and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2019 found insufficient evidence to determine whether chiropractic was effective in treating migraines.
The review analyzed six randomized controlled trials involving a total of 463 migraine patients. The authors concluded that the quality of the evidence was low, and that further research was needed to determine whether chiropractic was effective in treating migraines.
In another review, two independent researchers combed through seven databases of randomized clinical trials to identify and review all randomized clinical trials regarding spinal manipulation for migraine headache in humans.
They found just three trials that met inclusion criteria, and that methodological quality was mostly poor. The most rigorous trial found that spinal manipulation had no effect on migraine duration or disability compared with mobilization, and it didn’t matter whether the manipulation was done by a chiropractor or other medical practitioner.
Reviewers concluded that, “current evidence does not support the use of spinal manipulations for the treatment of migraine headaches.”
Overall, while some studies suggest that chiropractic may be effective for migraines, more high quality research is needed to better understand its potential benefits and limitations.
Should I Try Chiropractic for Migraine?
We will stop short of making any kind of recommendation for any medical or alternative tools — except of course for Axon Optics glasses powered by Avulux® Lenses. Our lenses are clinically proven to work by filtering out up to 97% of offending types of light (red, blue, and amber) while allowing up to 70% of the soothing green light through. They’re designed to help people with light sensitivity and migraine manage the impact of light on their daily life.
If you’re considering trying chiropractic for migraine, consult with your doctor and a qualified practitioner first. Together, consider whether chiropractic should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes other appropriate therapies and lifestyle modifications.
Risks and Side Effects
Chiropractic treatment for migraine is generally considered safe for most people. However, like any kind of medical intervention, there are some risks and potential side effects to be aware of.
- Soreness or discomfort: Some people may experience some temporary soreness in the treated area after a chiropractic adjustment. Any discomfort is usually mild and resolves within a couple of days.
- Headache: In rare cases, you may experience a temporary increase in headache frequency or intensity after a chiropractic visit.
- Injury: There is also a small risk of injury to the spinal cord or nerves, especially if you have a pre-existing spinal condition or have had back or neck surgery.
- Stroke: While rare, there have been reports of stroke occurring after cervical spine manipulation, which is a type of chiropractic manipulation. The risk of stroke after chiropractic care is low and correlations revealed have been weak. If you want to read the studies, we’ll list a few here.
- Carotid Artery Dissection and Ischemic Stroke Following Cervical Chiropractic Manipulation: Two Case Reports https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34971321/
- Current understanding of the relationship between cervical manipulation and stroke: what does it mean for the chiropractic profession? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20682039/
- Risk of vertebrobasilar stroke and chiropractic care: results of a population-based case-control and case-crossover study https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19251066/
Regardless of how you feel about any correlation between chiropractic care and stroke, please discuss any potential risks with your chiropractor prior to treatment, or with your doctor prior to seeing a chiropractor. If you have a history of stroke or blood clotting disorders, you should not undergo chiropractic manipulation. It is also important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience any severe or unusual symptoms after chiropractic treatment.
FAQs for Chiropractic Care for Migraine
You probably still have questions about chiropractic for migraine. Here are a few questions which are frequently asked, with the answers.
Can Spinal Misalignment Cause Migraine Attacks?
This has been studied, but there is currently no definitive evidence to suggest that spinal misalignment or chiropractic adjustments can cause migraine attacks.
After systematic review and meta-analysis investigating the relationship between the cervical spine and migraine headaches, an association was found to exist between cervical spine dysfunction and migraine. While this may seem to suggest that chiropractic adjustments targeting the cervical spine may be effective in treating migraine, the study did not find any evidence to suggest that spinal misalignment could cause migraine attacks.
How Long Does It Take for Chiropractic to Fix Headaches?
The timetable or any potential relief will vary from person to person and headache to headache. While some may experience relief after just one chiropractic adjustment, others may require several treatments or not get relief at all.
For tension headaches, some studies have suggested that chiropractic adjustments can provide significant relief in as little as one or two sessions. However, for chronic migraine, it may take several weeks or months of regular chiropractic visits to get meaningful improvement.
What is Cranial Adjustment for Migraines?
Cranial adjustment is also known as craniosacral therapy or cranial osteopathy. This involves gentle manipulation of the skull, spine, and other parts of the body to improve the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord.
Proponents of using this for migraine believe it helps relieve tension and compression in the skull and spine, which can contribute to migraine attacks. By improving the flow of fluid, cranial adjustments may also help reduce inflammation and improve the body's ability to heal itself.
While some people may get relief from cranial adjustments, there is limited scientific evidence to support it. Keep in mind that like anything else, these adjustments should only be performed by a licensed and experienced practitioner. Improper manipulation of the skull and spine can be harmful.
Can a Chiropractor Make Migraine Worse?
In rare cases, chiropractic adjustment may worsen migraine symptoms. This may be due to the fact that adjustments involve the manipulation of the spine and neck, which can cause stiffness, muscle tension, or soreness in some people.
If the underlying cause of your migraine attacks is not related to spinal misalignments or other issues that can be addressed with chiropractic care, adjustments may not help your condition and may even make things worse.
Most people who seek chiropractic care for migraine experience little to no side effects, but it’s always important to consult your healthcare provider about any potential risks before deciding whether chiropractic for migraine is a good option for you.
Can a Neck Out of Alignment Cause Migraine Attacks?
The theory behind this is that misalignments in the neck can cause compression or irritation of the nerves and blood vessels that supply the head and neck, which can trigger migraine attacks.
Some evidence cited earlier does suggest that cervical misalignment can contribute to the development of migraine attacks in some people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case for you. There are many other triggers that are more common.
Light is a Major Migraine Trigger
While some studies suggest that chiropractic care could be helpful for migraineurs, the evidence still looks a bit unreliable.
On the other hand, there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that light is a significant migraine trigger for a majority of migraineurs. Avulux lenses, as part of a healthy lifestyle, are designed to help you manage how light affects you.
If you feel your attacks are triggered or worsened by light, you may not want to pursue chiropractic care as a primary weapon against migraine. Instead, try Axon Optics with Avulux lenses designed for light sensitivity and migraine. Click here to learn more about our migraine lenses.