On Headaches, Gluten, and Fibromyalgia, Part 1

Women with a headacheToday I realized that it’s been nearly three months since my last blog post. I didn’t mean for it to have been so long, it’s just that I’ve been lost in a sort of black hole—a black hole of headaches.

Migraines to be exact.

You know the kind: head in a vice, feels like the flu, nausea, move too fast and lose your lunch, lock me in a dark room and go away, visual disturbances (things just don’t “look right”), etc.

Just shoot me now!

Then the headache pain leads to a big ol’ fibro flare and baby, we’re off and running. Am I right? I can tell you that I didn’t have any drugs in my secret stash that even made a scratch, not to mention a dent, in the pain I was feeling.

It’s been about six years since I’ve had headaches like this. I know because the last time was right after Scott and I got married, and we just celebrated our six-year anniversary last Sunday.

In talking with my doctors about this round of headaches, several questions keep coming up:

  • Why now? You’ve been basically fine for six years?
  • What do you think triggered these migraines?
  • What did you do before to keep your migraines at bay? Do you think that stopped working?
  • Is there something else going on here that we’re missing?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the answers to these questions and thought that it might help you to hear the answers. Maybe it will help your own headaches.

In this article, I’ll talk about what I’ve done in the past, that I’m still doing, to keep my migraines at bay. In the next article, On Headaches and Fibromyalgia, Part 2, I’ll talk about why I think these migraines popped up this year and what I did about them.

What was I doing for my headaches before?

There’s several things that I do regularly to keep myself at my best: being gentle with myself, daily supplements, eating a healthy diet, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic. This is part of my regular maintenance routine for my fibromyalgia, and for me as a person.

If any one of these six things falls off, I feel it. I know when my spine is out of alignment and needs to be adjusted. I feel it if my body isn’t being fed the fuel it needs to keep it running well (sort of like putting the wrong kind of gas in your car). If I don’t get regular massage, I can feel my fibro body start to tense back up.


Acupuncture, however, deserves it’s own section. I’ve received a huge benefit from acupuncture, both for my headaches and for my fibromyalgia pain.

There have been many interesting studies on acupuncture, along with how it helps headaches and fibromyalgia.

One of the studies I find interesting is this one conducted at the University of Michigan back in 2009. To quote the article, “Using brain imaging, [this] study is the first to provide evidence that traditional Chinese acupuncture affects the brain’s long-term ability to regulate pain.” They think that acupuncture stimulates our body’s natural pain killers, and can even make the drugs we take for pain more effective.

In 2008, researchers in Brazil published this study on the effect that acupuncture had on fibromyalgia symptoms specifically. They compared the use of acupuncture with tricyclic antidepressants, as compared to tricyclic antidepressants and exercise. After 20 acupuncture treatments, all participants in the acupuncture group “were significantly better than the control group in all measures of pain”, as well as five areas of quality of life.

In addition, a German study showed that acupuncture actually changes how pain is perceived in our brains using a functional MRI.

If you haven’t had a chance to try acupuncture, I highly recommend it!

Topamax (topiramate)

Since I had those awful headaches back in 2006, I’ve been on Topamax to help prevent them (the generic is topiramate); it’s been really quite successful.

Back then I didn’t realize that the continual headaches, that on my pain scale only ranked about a 6, could be migraines. I also didn’t realize that all of the odd “it doesn’t really hurt, but something’s definitely not quite right” times were also migraines.

Fortunately my doctor suggested we try taking something preventative (Topamax) and it made a world of difference. My headaches reduced in severity and in frequency.

Topamax is also used in fibromyalgia treatment.

Cheryl Hryciw, FNP, spoke last fall to the fibromyalgia support group I co-lead. In her talk I was very surprised to learn that she often prescribes Topamax for several fibromyalgia symptoms including brain fog, dizziness, balance issues, and more.

Cheryl told our group that a fibromyalgia brain acts very similarly to one that has a concussion. Topamax works to reduce that “concussed” state so that our fibro brains can function more normally. I have one client who was having terrible dizziness issues. Every car ride for her was like being on a roller coaster! Topamax has been a life-changer for her.

Avoiding Gluten (My Allergy Foods)

Back in 2009, I discovered that I have a pretty good sensitivity to gluten. As soon as I started avoiding gluten, I actually began to have headache-free days, weeks, and months. I would rarely have a headache that ranked over a 4.

My fibromyalgia symptoms improved, along with my headaches.

I felt less fatigued, my brain fog lifted, I slept better, and my body pain improved. I just felt better overall!

In the years since I’ve given up gluten, I’ve definitely noticed that for me, gluten is a headache trigger. I’ve known many migraineurs over the years; we all have our unique triggers: chocolate, strawberries, gluten. The best way to determine what your triggers are is to keep a headache diary in conjunction with a food diary.

Gluten has been a hot topic of discussion. I recently ran across this article, Does Gluten Cause Migraine Headaches? The author of this article looks at a variety of studies and comes to this conclusion: “The current evidence suggesting that gluten causes migraine headache is very tentative.”

I would agree, if all you are looking at is one food, in this case gluten, as the trigger for all migraines. However, I believe that for people prone to migraines (there is a genetic component), certain foods will be triggers—particularly the foods you are allergic to. For some of us, that allergy/trigger food is gluten.

I suggest all my clients have food allergy testing done.

For most of us, the trigger foods that we’ve identified on our own are the things that allergy testing shows as our high allergy foods. There are several different allergy pathways (for lack of a better description), so just doing a skin prick test or a blood test may not show your complete range of allergies.

Allergy testing will have to be the topic of a future blog post. In the meantime, feel free to contact me so I can tell you more about how this can really help your headaches and your fibromyalgia symptoms.

Update 6/27/2012: Part 2 has now been added. Read it here.

Action Steps

It would make me feel better to know that all my pain helped you avoid some! I encourage you to learn from my recent pondering. Here’s how you can do that:

  1. Let me help you take an honest look to see if what you’re experiencing might be migraines, if you’re not sure. If you know you suffer from migraines, or even garden-variety headaches, let me help you take a fresh look at how they are being managed. An outside viewpoint is crucial because it’s easy to forget what “normal” is like.
  2. Take what you learned in #1 and talk to your doctor about it. You deserve to have a treatment plan that works for you!

Working with Tami gave me hope for healing for the first time in years. My fibromyalgia has been very chronic throughout my life and Tami’s gentle way of listening and supporting me helped me realize how much discomfort I had been tolerating. With her guidance, I’ve been able to acknowledge my challenges and build a support team that is helping me with the special care I need for well-being and peace of mind. — Christine

Tami Stackelhouse


Acupuncture, Chiropractic, FibroME Support Center, Gluten, Massage, Medication, Self-care

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  1. Gluten was a big one for me, once I cut back on all the breads and pastas kept my eye out for sneaky gluten (seriously, what is gluten not in?) it cut my migraines down by 80%.

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