On Head Pain
In a previous post, I detailed how a book called Healing Back Pain helped me learn about a thing called TMS (either Tension Myoneural Syndrome or The Mindbody Syndrome), in which one’s own mental processes learn to accentuate and eventually induce pain, such that the only actual cause of the pain is the mind, and the only solution is believing it away. Sounds crazy but I am a firm believer - it fixed seven years of back pain and now I’m happy to say it’s also fixed my migraines.
After the amazing success with my back, I was in fact thinking about other things in my life that I might have more control over than I’d realized, and my semi-frequent headaches had sprung to mind (no pun). But I tried it and it didn’t work. Meanwhile my headaches were getting worse, too. They went from once a week to 5-6 times a week. They started in the evening (or sometimes afternoon) and lasted until I woke up, or sometimes longer. They involved eye pain, and were almost always in the front section of my head. I thought I had migraines. I tried a bunch of remedies:
- quit alcohol
- quit caffeine
- quit sugar
- sleep 9pm-5am every day
- work out but not too much
- quit all other supplements
- get glasses
- standing desk, adjust screen brightness / color balance
- medicinal psychedelics
Really I was living an utterly healthly, monastic lifestyle, and if anything the headaches got worse.
While researching other ideas (because what else could I do, these headaches had become completely debilitating), I started reading backlogs of the reddit subcommunity r/migraine. And in one comment of one particular post I found a link to a book called Unlearning Migraine by Arturo Goicoechea. Here is my review of it - I did read the whole thing, but honestly it was not a great book. You could read the entirety of the book from my back pain post and just replace “back” with “head” and you’d be better off.
In Goicoechea’s defense though, he does spend some time illuminating the specifically neural processes by which TMS functions, or at least, he presents an interesting theory - he says that the body’s immune system functions in the brain as well, on a neuronal level, and that when the brain detects an issue, it triggers a pain sensation, in a process he calls the neuroimmune system. He says TMS migraines happen when the “brain detecting an issue” part of that paradigm gets corrupted (altho he seemingly doesn’t know about TMS). He goes into some detail about NSAIDS and how they work, and about how the various migraine triggers we all learn to avoid actually serve to emphasize and reiterate to the neuroimmune system that it needs to keep causing pain. Goicoechea, like Sarno in the other book, identifies the vast majority of pain (migraines, back, respectively) as coming from TMS, rather than any more proximate cause.
In my own case, I finished Goicoechea’s book in the emergency room while my wife was in labor with our firstborn. And the main takeaway I got from the book was, every time I feel the telltale signs of a migraine coming on, instead of being afraid, just say to myself “false alarm”. Not to worry, this won’t be horrible, it’s just a false alarm - my neuroimmune system has learned a bad pathway, and in order to unlearn it, I just need to convince it that what it’s sure is a headache-worthy problem is actually a false alarm. So there in the labor and delivery room I finished the book and also started to feel the beginning of a migraine, and even as I was helping my wife push, I was saying to myself, in my head, “false alarm”. And then I was a little distracted by subsequent events, but suffice to say by the end of that day I’d had one baby and no migraines.
Unlike my back pain, which literally disappeared overnight after reading Sarno’s book, the headaches kept on attempting to come back, night after night, for 2 weeks. But every single time I immediately remembered to tell myself “false alarm”, with conviction. And just like with the back pain, the conviction really is the point - this truly is a mental phenomenon under your control, but believing that fact is a precondition to acting on it. Each night the migraines would begin, and I would say the magic words to myself with conviction maybe 3 or 4 times over the course of an hour while I felt the bare beginnings of a headache - and then I would get distracted doing something fun and the headache would just fade away. And after those two weeks, even on next to no sleep, the headaches didn’t come back. They still haven’t, a month later. I haven’t had a single headache in a month, when I was getting them just about every night before this.
I feel compelled to spread the word just as I did with the back pain, and it saddens me that so many people are suffering so badly from back and head pain when they needn’t. Are all such pains caused by TMS? No, I’m sure not. Both backs and heads can be hurt by physical things, and I don’t think you can think your way out of that. The signs that it might be TMS include:
- no immediate injury, or injury happened 3+ months ago
- Personality type prone to anxiety
Without a lot of study I’m not sure what proportion of people could really benefit from this, but I feel fairly convinced that a lot of the people posting on r/migraine about how their lives are incredibly difficult, about all the things they avoid that might trigger their migraines, about how they wish they could lead a normal life, really could improve, fairly easily, with this information. If they could find the conviction.
So if you’d like to try it:
- have faith
- every time you feel a tingle of pain, remind yourself that it’s a false alarm
- don’t avoid triggers
- don’t take painkillers
- live life as normal