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Pain Physiology Scientific Research Self Care

Are migraines caused by an echo in the brain?

Many types of pain – including migraines, amplified regional pain syndrome, and fibromyalgia – are caused by a failure of the nervous system.

A negative spiral

Acute pain protects us from tissue damage – we pull back from flames because we feel pain. Unfortunately, this healthy system can backfire. Many chronic pain conditions are caused because pain continues in the absence of tissue damage.

Instead of helping, it harms. In fact, the chronic stress (and the physical cascade stress causes), interferes with normal physical activities, making it harder for the body to maintain and heal. The psychological trauma, depression, and anxiety caused by persistent pain exacerbate this negative cycle. Pain interferes with our ability to keep ourselves physically and mentally healthy. That, in turn, makes pain worse.

Is persistent pain – particularly migraine – an echo?

I found this paper on brain synchronization fascinating in migraine patients. It argues that migraines may be caused by an ‘echo’ in the brain.

A sound echo happens when sound waves bounce off a hard surface so you hear the original and then hear the bounce. In a really good echo chamber, cchoes can reinforce each other so the echo is louder than the original sound. That loudness is caused by the reinforcing and suppression effects of waves.

When I was in high school physics, I loved playing with wave tanks and string demonstrations of standing waves. Or playing with slinkies – you wiggle them back and forth and – if you do it just right – you see some places that seem like they’re standing still even though the Slinky around them is moving crazily.

That wicked cool effect is caused by ‘standing waves’ – named after the patterns of motionless waves you see in moving rivers and streams. You can see a whole explanation of this in the video below.

How do standing waves work in the brain?

In the brain, neurons spread signals. Sometimes those signals are echoed or reinforced. Sometimes they are suppressed. Just like standing waves.

In this experiment, the researchers used EEG imaging to compare the brain activity of people who have frequent migraines with those who don’t. EEGs measure what parts of the brain are activated.

All participants looked at flashing lights – a frequent migraine trigger.

What the researchers found is that in those without migraines, flashing lights stimulated activity in one part of the brain, but SUPPRESSED it in others. Brain reactivity was coordinated so stimulation in one area damped activity in other brain areas so they didn’t activate in sympathy. In other words – their brains stopped the echo.

The opposite happened for people with migraines. One part of the brain appropriately reacted to the flashing lights. But other parts of the brain INCREASED activity. There was an echo. An amplification.

The authors speculate that this amplification of brain excitation in response to stimuli may make people with migraines more sensitive to things happening in the environment – sound, smells, tastes, emotions, stress. It may also be why stimuli that triggers pain may keep going. One area of the brain responds. Another echoes it in sympathy and those areas keep setting each other off in a reinforcing pattern.

Any of this sounding familiar? It’s a small study (30 participants) but I found the results intriguing.

Binaural sound

This is entirely speculative on my part, but reading this study reminds me of the use of binaural sound to break a migraine.

Binaural sound is when your left and right ears get slightly different input. That is almost always the cause, but in binaural soundscapes specifically designed to exaggerate the effect, the differences between left and right ears can be really striking.

Binaural sound separation is most effective when you’re wearing headphones so you don’t get ‘leakage’ from one ear to the other.

Because sound coming from different ears are processed in different parts of the brain, having distinct sounds coming from each earphone makes it impossible for different areas of the brainto echo one another. Both areas are too busy to respond to what the other is doing.

Is that why binaural beat soundtracks help some people with migraines? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting hypothesis.

I do know, binaural soundscapes can help me when my pain is bad.

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(c) 2021 Nancy Darling