Does complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use reduce negative life impact of headaches for chronic migraineurs? A national survey
© The Author(s) 2016
Received: 14 April 2016
Accepted: 18 May 2016
Published: 7 July 2016
Chronic migraine is a disabling condition that impacts multiple aspects of migraineurs’ lives. Although pharmacological treatments can help to treat the pain associated with migraine headache, chronic migraineurs often experience side-effects of pharmacological treatments. Those experiences may contribute to the observed growth in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use among migraineurs. Relatively little is known about the patterns of CAM treatment and the characteristics of chronic migraineurs. Therefore, the purpose of the present study is to investigate the characteristics of chronic migraineurs who use CAM treatment and the relationship among satisfaction with current CAM use, negative life impact, migraine outcomes, and psychiatric comorbidities among chronic migraineurs.
2907 participants were recruited from a well-known online migraine headache resource. All participants were US adults aged 18 years or older. Migraineurs are referred to this website through various routes (e.g., referral from healthcare providers, internet search, obtaining information from research papers, personal invitation from other users, and information shared on social media etc.). Participants completed a 30-min self-report-survey in the spring of 2014.
Almost half of the participants reported that they are currently using more than three different CAM treatments even though the majority of the participants reported neutral or dissatisfied with their current CAM treatment. Chronic migraineurs who use CAM treatments were more likely to experience prolonged or frequent migraine headaches (p = .018, η2 = .0021), and experience greater negative life impact from their headaches (p = .000, η2 = .0172) compared to non-CAM users. CAM treatment satisfaction was inversely related to the number of psychiatric comorbidities, frequency of migraines, and number of migraine symptoms (p’s < .05). However, CAM treatment satisfaction was more strongly correlated with migraine outcomes than psychiatric comorbidities.
Chronic migraineurs often pursue multiple CAM treatments in spite of low levels of satisfaction with those treatments. Patients who experience relief from traditional treatments are less likely to seek the out additional CAM treatments. Thus it is often the sicker migraine patients who use CAM. More attention is needed to consider migraine treatment resistance, and psychological factors in planning the treatment of chronic migraineurs as those factors may play an important role in treatment choices by patients.
Migraine headaches are a common health condition which affects more than 10 % of the global adult population (Adams et al. 2013). In the US, 14.2 % of US adults were affected by migraine or severe headaches (Burch et al. 2015). Migraine is a disabling condition that impacts not only productivity and attendance at work or school, but also quality of life at home.
Pharmacological treatments of migraine headaches can help to relieve the pain and symptoms associated with migraine headache. However, migraineurs often experience side-effects of pharmacological treatments and frequent use of medications can lead to medication overuse headaches (Adams et al. 2013). The limits to pharmacological treatments may explain high usage of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) among migraineurs (Wells et al. 2011). The number of migraineurs who are using CAM treatment in conjunction with traditional medical treatments has been growing over the years (Eisenberg et al. 1998; Jacobson et al. 2009; Kaptchuck and Eisenberg 1998). Consistent with this pattern, a number of studies investigating the prevalence and patterns of CAM treatment in migraineurs have been slowly growing, however, previous studies were conducted within individual headache clinics with limited populations (Adams et al. 2013; Wells et al. 2011).
Relatively little is known about the patterns of CAM treatment and the characteristics of migraineurs in the general community; therefore, the current study focuses on migraineurs who are recruited nationwide from across the US. Due to technological advancement and widespread internet access in recent years, most people search for health-related information on the internet and also seek emotional and instrumental support from the internet community. Considering this trend, the present study analyzed the data collected from a community-based website for migraine headache in the US.
Previous study (Wachholtz et al. 2015) found that chronic migraineurs often experienced high levels of dissatisfaction with medical and CAM treatments for migraine headaches. This study further indicated that chronic migraineurs tended to seek multiple treatments instead of focusing on a single treatment. This tendency may occur because migraineurs use CAM treatments not only to treat their migraine symptoms but also to improve the quality of life by preventing headaches or by increasing their energy levels (Wells et al. 2011). Previous studies (Lipton et al. 2003; Malone et al. 2015; Smitherman et al. 2011; Wachholtz et al. 2015) indicated that migraine headache was associated with negative impacts in different domains of life (e.g., physical function, social function, role function, mental health). However, relatively little is known about the relationship between satisfaction with CAM use and the negative life impacts of migraine among migraineurs.
In order to address gaps in previous studies mentioned above, the present study investigated the data collected on the web-community in order to provide insights into (1) the characteristics of chronic migraine sufferers, (2) chronic migraineurs who use CAM treatment compared to who do not use CAM treatment; (3) the prevalence of different types of CAM use; and (4) the details of negative life impact affected by migraine; and (5) the relationship among satisfaction with current CAM use, negative life impact, migraine outcomes, and psychiatric comorbidities among chronic migraineurs.
Patient demographics, and migraine characteristics
Age in years
First migraine symptoms
Migraine symptoms frequency lasting 4+ hours per month
Symptoms associated with migraine headache
Sensitivity to light
Nausea and/or vomiting
Sensitivity to sound
Sensitivity to smell
Triggers to migraine and side effects of migraine medications
Triggers to migraine
Environmental (weather etc.)
Lack of sleep
Certain food or drinks
Any special steps to avoid these triggers
Currently keep a journal to track migraine episodes
Avoided using a medicine due to side effects
Stopped using a medicine due to side effects
All methods were approved by the University of Massachusetts IRB and all participants indicated their consent to participate in the study prior to answering any of the study questions. Migraineurs are referred to this website through various routes (e.g., referral from healthcare providers, internet search, obtaining information from research papers, personal invitation from other users, and information shared on social media etc.). IP address logging prevented participants from responding to the survey multiple times. Participants were not compensated in any way for their participation in the survey. Participants completed a 30-min self-report-survey in the spring of 2014.
ANOVA of migraine factors comparing groups on CAM use status
Negative life impact
47.382 (1, 2709)
Years since first migraine
5.585 (1, 2709)
Frequency of migraine symptoms lasting 4+
10.290 (1, 2709)
Number of migraine symptoms
388.026 (1, 2709)
Number of psychiatric comorbid disorders
Triggers to migraine
1361.729 (1, 2709)
Negative life impact was measured by 6 statements (1) Migraines affect my ability to maintain relationships; (2) Migraines have impacted my professional achievement; (3) I have lost a job due to my migraines; (4) I’ve lost friends due to my migraines; (5) Migraines contributed to my divorce/separation; and (6) Migraines impact my relationship with my child/children). Total score for negative life impact was a summation of the negative life items endorsed.
Descriptive statistics, analysis of variance, and Pearson’s R correlation analyses were used to describe participant’s demographic information and migraine characteristics and examine relationships among different variables in the survey data. Path analyses were performed to investigate differential relationships among satisfaction with CAM treatment and pharmacological treatment, number of psychiatric co-morbid disorders, migraine frequency, number of migraine symptoms, and negative life impact. In order to explore the discrepancies in the characteristics of CAM users and non-CAM users, two CAM use groups were created; participants who are using at least one CAM treatment currently was considered as CAM users and participants who are not using any CAM treatment currently were classified as non-CAM users. One-way ANOVA was conducted on different outcomes with two CAM use groups. Three satisfaction groups were created in order to explore how satisfaction with current CAM use impact on negative life impact and frequency of migraine; (1) Satisfied Group, which includes participants answering either highly satisfied or satisfied with their current CAM treatment, (2) Neutral Group, which includes participants reporting neutral satisfaction with current CAM treatment, and (3) CAM Dissatisfaction Group, which includes participants responding either highly dissatisfied or dissatisfied with their current CAM treatment. One-way ANOVAs were performed on different outcomes with three CAM Satisfaction Groups.
The characteristics of CAM users versus non-CAM users
Type and numbers of current CAM use and CAM use satisfaction (N = 2477)
Type of CAM therapy
Cranial sacral therapy
Avoid other triggers
Current CAM use (number of methods used)
4 or more
Current CAM use satisfaction
Strongly dissatisfied and dissatisfied
Strongly satisfied and satisfied
The prevalence of patterns of CAM use
The prevalence and patterns CAM use were summarized in the Table 4. Each participant was instructed to select CAM treatment that they were currently using and was also allowed to select more than one CAM treatment. According to the Table 4, avoiding light, hot/cold therapy, diet, taking vitamin supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic, and relaxation/meditation were the frequently used CAM treatment among the participants of the present study. Almost half of the participants reported that they are currently using more than three different CAM treatments even though the majority of the participants reported neutral or dissatisfied with their current CAM treatment (Table 4).
The details of negative life impact affected by migraine headache
Negative life impact of migraine headaches (N = 2710)
Migraine affect my ability to maintain relationships
1027 (37.9 %)
Migraines have impacted professional advancement
1207 (44.5 %)
I have lost a job due to my migraine
612 (22.6 %)
Migraines impact my relationship with my child/children
476 (17.6 %)
I’ve lost friends due to my migraines
183 (6.8 %)
Migraines contributed to my divorce/separation
1029 (38 %)
The relationship between satisfaction with current CAM use and quality of life and migraine headache
One-way ANOVA in negative life impact, migraine outcomes, and psychiatric comorbid disorders by current CAM Satisfaction Groups
Negative life impact
36.564 (2, 2476)
Frequency of migraine symptoms lasting 4+
71.965 (2, 2476)
Number of migraine symptoms
18.643 (2, 2476)
Number of psychiatric comorbid disorders
5.916 (2, 2476)
Number of migraine symptoms and psychiatric comorbid disorders revealed similar patterns; CAM Dissatisfaction Group experienced significantly more migraine symptoms and psychiatric comorbidities compared to CAM Neutral Group and CAM Satisfaction Group whereas there were no significant differences between CAM Neutral Group and CAM Satisfaction Group (Fig. 2). Lastly, as shown in Fig. 2, different pattern was observed on triggers to migraine; CAM Satisfaction Groups identified significantly more triggers than CAM Neutral Group and CAM Dissatisfaction Group whereas no significant difference was observed between CAM Neutral Group and CAM Dissatisfaction Group.
Path analysis of treatment satisfaction (CAM treatment) on negative life impact of migraine
Consistent with previous studies (Adams et al. 2013; Gaul et al. 2009; Lambert et al. 2010; Malone et al. 2015; Rossi et al. 2006; Wachholtz et al. 2015), the present study revealed that CAM users were more likely to have comorbid mental health issues, suffered from more intense headaches for a longer period of time, and experienced more negative life impact of migraine compared to Non-CAM users. These results suggest that individuals may seek out alternative sources of healing when standard biomedical treatments do not meet their needs, are too expensive, considered too dangerous, or the side effects of treatments are too overwhelming. In spite of common use of CAM treatments as the last resort to treat intense intractable pain, migraineurs usually do not inform their medical providers about their CAM use (Lambert et al. 2010; Rossi et al. 2006). This result highlights the importance of investigating the patterns of CAM use among chronic migraineurs. A number of studies (Adams et al. 2013; Gaul et al. 2009; Lambert et al. 2010; Rossi et al. 2006) examined migraineurs’ CAM using patterns but most studies were conducted in headache clinics so the present study investigated the CAM use among chronic migraineurs in the community settings.
According to the current study, managing triggers such as avoiding light and applying hot and cold packs were the most commonly used CAM treatment among chronic migraineurs. Next frequently used CAM treatments include nutritional therapies. These results can be explained by people’s tendency to select the CAM methods that are most easily available when treating migraine symptoms and trying CAM for the first time. More extensive therapies such as massage, acupuncture and chiropractic treatment were also frequently used CAM treatments among the participants of the current study but were less popular than home-based CAM options, which were consistent with the results from previous studies (Gaul et al. 2009; Rossi et al. 2006). These results may suggest important clinical implications for chronic migraineurs. Individuals with chronic migraine may experience difficulty in engaging in more extensive CAM treatments on a consistent basis due to their physical disability associated with migraine and economic costs related to these non-home based CAM practices. However, they may be more willing to try methods they can practice at home such as managing triggers, monitoring their pain and symptoms, and self-pain-management techniques such as meditation/relaxation and activities that enhance mental well-being (e.g., pet therapy, music, prayer). According to the current study, almost half of the chronic migraineurs identified various triggers to their migraine headaches; however, only 35 % of the participants reported keeping a journal to track migraine episodes. Education for tracking migraine episodes will enhance chronic migraineurs’ ability in managing triggers to migraine. Two of the most frequently identified triggers to migraine among chronic migraineurs in the present study were stress and lack of sleep. Those two factors can contribute to the development of other comorbid disorders such as psychological problems and sleep disorders when those become chronic, therefore, it should be important for health care providers to provide sleep hygiene education and make a referral to psychotherapy interventions such as sleep education or stress management therapy when treating chronic migraineurs.
Like most chronic illnesses, migraine headaches profoundly impact individuals’ health as well as his/her family and vocational life. Previous research suggested the impacts of migraine headache on different aspects of life (Lipton et al. 2003; Malone et al. 2015; Smitherman et al. 2011; Wachholtz et al. 2015) and the impact of migraine in physical and social functioning was even greater for migraineurs compared to individuals who struggle with other chronic illnesses (Solomon et al. 1994). The present study revealed that chronic migraine headaches placed similar burden on migraineurs to non-chronic migraineurs as chronic migraine not only causes physical disability but also brings social disability due to its chronicity and breath of symptoms associated with migraine. Thus, a multi-discipline approach in treatment planning can be beneficial in assisting chronic migraineurs. In addition to traditional pharmacological treatments, various CAM treatments such as psychosocial treatments, nutritional treatments, and bodywork therapies can be recommended to chronic migraineurs in order to manage their migraine symptoms.
It should also be noted that migraines may be treatment resistant. The majority of the participants in the present study reported that they suffered from migraine headaches for more than 10 years and either avoided or stopped migraine medications due to side effects. Furthermore, high numbers of chronic migraineurs in the current study reported either neutral or dissatisfaction with either pharmacological treatments or CAM treatments, which was consistent with previous studies (Malone et al. 2015; Wachholtz et al. 2015). In spite of its limited benefit, chronic migraineurs are known to attempt multiple CAM treatments and this treatment-seeking-pattern may occur because (1) traditional pharmacological treatments do not properly address their pain and symptoms associated with migraine; and (2) CAM treatments help chronic migraineurs to reduce negative impact of migraine by improving their physical and mental wellbeing.
Examining the negative effects of migraine in different domains of life is well established in previous research, however, a closer look at the relationship between treatment satisfaction with CAM use and negative life impact by investigating factors affecting both treatment satisfaction with CAM use and negative life impact has not been conducted in previous studies. According to the present study, when migraineurs had greater satisfaction with alternative medicine treatment, they concurrently had lower levels of negative life impact, less frequently suffered from prolonged migraine headaches, experienced less symptoms associated with migraine, and were less likely to experience psychiatric comorbidities. We would postulate that these results occur because “satisfaction” means that migraineurs have experienced some symptom relief with their CAM treatment, where as “dissastified” suggests that they have not experienced relief from CAM treatments, so they are still suffering and may not see an end to their headaches leading to greater psychiatric comorbidities.
Therefore, satisfaction with CAM treatments may play protective factor for negative effects of migraine headache in daily functioning.
In order to further explore the relationship between CAM treatment satisfaction and negative life impact, the present study examined migraine outcomes (e.g., migraine frequency and number of migraine symptoms) and psychiatric comorbidity (e.g., anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD etc.) and how those factors are associated with CAM treatment satisfaction and negative life impact. The results of the present study showed that the inverse relationship between CAM treatment satisfaction and psychiatric comorbidities was weaker than the inverse relationship between CAM treatment satisfaction and migraine outcomes although psychiatric comorbidities and migraine outcomes were all strongly associated with greater levels of negative life impact. These results may indicate that CAM treatment may affect mental well-being of chronic migraineurs positively but in a lesser degree compared to the degree that the effectiveness of CAM treatments affects migraine outcomes. One partial explanation for this is that relatively few numbers of CAM treatments identified in the present study were devoted to improving mental health well-being. In the present study, psychiatric and psychological factors may play the important roles as a contributing factor (i.e., stress as one of the most frequently identified triggers to migraine) as well as a precipitating factor (i.e., psychiatric comorbidities were the most common comorbid disorders among chronic migraineurs) to migraine headache. Psychiatric comorbidities may also be a risk factor to negative life experiences. For instance, chronic migraineurs may blame migraine headache for their disabilities when their disabilities are actually due to their psychiatric comorbidities (Wachholtz et al. 2015) or their pain experience caused by migraine may have been amplified due to psychiatric comorbidities. These results are significant because they emphasized the importance of treating psychiatric comorbidities in chronic migraineurs since appropriate care of the psychiatric comorbidities can directly affect quality of life and/or indirectly to increase quality of life by reducing migraine symptoms. Previous study (Pistoia et al. 2013) indicated that combined treatments to target both migraine symptoms and psychological co-morbidities in order to enhance the quality of life for chronic migraineurs are important, however, only few studies (Kleiboer et al. 2014) investigated the effectiveness of psychological treatments on chronic migraineurs.
Despite the contributions of the present study to the field, there are some limitations. Although the present study recruited participants from one major US migraine headache website and have similar demographics to US migraineurs, the participants of the present study may not be representative for all migraineurs as it was self-selected sample, which is the standard method of collecting data in on-line survey study. In addition, the present study measured symptoms associated with migraine as well as the negative life impact caused by migraine headaches. Future studies need to include questionnaires as well as qualitative methods such as individual interviews as well as focus group data in order to provide more detailed pictures of the negative impact of migraine headache as well as the experiences of chronic migraineurs who seek self-care resources on-line.
The present study contributed to the field by increasing our knowledge about migraine characteristics, CAM use patterns, and the differential relationships among CAM treatment satisfaction, migraine headache outcomes, psychiatric comorbidities, and negative life impact among chronic migraineurs. Chronic migraineurs usually pursue multiple CAM treatments in spite of low levels of satisfaction with their treatments as they tend to suffer from more severe symptoms of migraine and more psychiatric comorbidities without significant improvement from traditional medical treatments. Consistent with previous literature, chronic migraineurs experience a broad range of migraine symptoms and those symptoms negatively affect various aspects of chronic migraineurs’ life. This shows the complex nature of migraine headache compared to other chronic illnesses and therefore calls for multidisciplinary approach to treatment. CAM treatment may play a protective factor against negative life experiences among chronic migraineurs. However, CAM treatments may have a limited benefit for psychiatric comorbidities. More attention is needed to consider psychiatric and psychological factors in planning the treatment of chronic migraineurs as those factors may play an important role in disease process of migraine headache. The implementation of psychosocial interventions for chronic migraineurs, the proper referral system to psychiatric and psychological treatments by treatment providers, and the establishment of clinical guidelines for evidence-based CAM treatments that target mental well-being in the context of headache clinics can enhance the quality of life among chronic migraineurs. In order to develop clinical guidelines of CAM treatments that focus on mental wellbeing as well as psychiatric and psychological treatments, future studies should examine longitudinal changes based on different types of CAM use that target mental well-beings.
JL participated in the development of main concepts for the present manuscript, performed the statistical analysis and the interpretation of the data, and wrote the manuscript. AW participated in the design of the present study, acquired the data, provided guidance and feedback in data analysis and data interpretation, and helped to draft the manuscript. AB participated in the study design and coordination of data collection, and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number K23DA030397 to Amy Wachholtz. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
All methods were approved by the University of Massachusetts IRB and all participants indicated their consent to participate in the study prior to answering any of the study questions.
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