Treating Migraines with Masturbation

New research in self-care suggests an unexpected way to ease headache pain

You might not look to your own hand for migraine relief, but research suggests, maybe you should; masturbation may be an effective treatment option for migraine sufferers. And while the news may shock some and make others blush, it is all very scientific.

At the University of Münster in Germany, Stefan Evers, MD, and colleagues performed the largest cohort study of its kind on this topic. The team sent a questionnaire to 600 unselected migraine patients to anonymously survey their experience with migraine pain intensity during sexual activity. Approximately 60% of the respondents who engaged in sexual activity during a migraine reported relief.

A professor of neurology and clinical neurophysiology and chair of the Headache Panel of the European Academy of Neurology, Dr. Evers discussed the study’s implications with Practical Pain Management. He believes that orgasm is a key factor in pain relief, due to the endorphins released during climax. It was unclear in his study whether sexual excitement leading up to orgasm had any positive effects on pain, but he did note that the movement of sex could worsen certain migraine symptoms such as sensitivity to touch and nausea. And while the neurologist does not routinely discuss his patients’ sex lives with them, if asked, he advises masturbation. Due to the nature of the survey-based study, biological imperatives for pain relief are unknown; Dr. Evers and his colleagues are careful to only speculate that the endorphins released during orgasm are the primary reason for the pain relief.

Meanwhile, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, researchers of a much smaller study have worked to demystify the relationship between orgasms and pain relief. Led by Nan Wise, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology lecturer, researchers sought to explain why a woman’s pain tolerance could increase by up to 75% during orgasm. To find out, Dr. Wise turned to brain imaging.

A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine may not sound like the sexiest place to pleasure yourself, but that’s exactly what 10 women did while Dr. Nan Wise and colleagues at Rutgers monitored their brain activity. The images showed how orgasms engage an area of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus that releases serotonin, a powerful analgesic. Dr. Evers’ hypothesis wasn’t far off. While serotonin may act shorter than endorphins, they are both mechanisms of the reward system and function in similar directions.  In the Rutgers study, participants first orgasmed by self-stimulation and then from stimulation by a partner; both methods activated the dorsal raphe nucleus.

A region of the brain called the nucleus cuneiformis was also activated during orgasm. The nucleus cuneiformis is part of the brainstem thought to help control pain through thought. In essence, during climax, neurologists saw increased brain activity in regions promoting an analgesic reaction and a pain management response. This neurological activation could explain why participants in the Münster University study reported migraine relief during and after orgasm.

Perhaps the most promising news from these studies is the absence of side effects. For those who suffer from migraines, pain is only a fraction of the problem. In addition to symptoms such as light sensitivity and nausea, patients can experience years of troubleshooting treatments that may involve preventive and abortive pills, vitamins, botox or acupuncture, and more. And in some cases, they are left with Medication Overuse Headache, and feel more helpless. Masturbation, on the other hand, is fairly harmless. The only potential pitfall that Dr. Evers observed was what he called “the opposite phenomenon,” that is, headaches caused by sexual activity, also known as coital cephalalgia. Dr. Evers noted that, “this headache is different from migraines, is treated differently, and has nothing to do with the migraine attack.” Sexual headaches are more common in men, and are most typically short in duration. Migraine patients tend to experience this headache more often than other people, albeit it separately from a migraine attack.

As regards gender, while the majority of migraine sufferers are women, pleasure may be an optimal treatment for pain among both genders. Even though only a minority of respondents in the Münster study were men, the benefits were equally reported for both men and women. Orgasm releases many of the same chemicals in men as in women: endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Low dopamine levels often correspond with migraine symptoms, so the surge in this neurotransmitter further explains migraine relief post orgasm.  

So next time a migraine strikes, consider self-care via masturbation. Pleasuring yourself may turn out to be one of your greatest tools for pain relief.

Updated on: 05/08/18
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