Tony Bateson vividly remembers the first time he ever had a migraine attack. "I was 67. It was four in the afternoon and I was driving alone in heavy traffic and very strong sun. I felt a blow on the back of my head followed by extreme downward pressure. My vision diminished. I thought I was having a stroke and was going to die. It was terrifying."
Tony managed to get off the highway and pull into a service station, where he sat in his car for two hours, unable to do anything. "I was incapacitated," says Tony. "I couldn't even call my wife to tell her I was going to be late home."
Gradually, Tony regained his sight and felt well enough to drive home, confused about what he had experienced. It was only months later he realized he'd had a migraine.
After that, Tony started to suffer from migraines in clusters. "I'd have three or four attacks in a week, then nothing for a few months, until the next cluster," says Tony, who is now 87 and lives in Oxford, UK.
The attacks would last for an hour and a half to two hours, during which time Tony would be "completely out of it." This continued for four years.
But in 2005, something happened that broke the pattern. "I was driving on my own and had exactly the same type of migraine I had the first time," says Tony. "But this time I lost my temper. I started ranting and raging—yelling expletives in the car."
Remarkably, the migraine quickly went away—something that had never happened before. Usually, a migraine attack for Tony would be so debilitating he couldn't do anything for at least a couple of hours. He was amazed that on this occasion, he was able to continue as normal, and even to carry on with his studies that evening at Oxford University, where he was a mature student.
Trial and error
Intrigued, Tony decided to try "ranting and raging" the next time he started to feel a migraine coming on. "It was a much more civilized form of ranting and raging," says Tony. "But again, it seemed to stop the migraine in its tracks."
This happened several times until Tony thought he must be onto something. He then began reading everything he could about migraine, with the goal of trying to find out how his yelling could have possibly stopped his migraines. In particular, Tony was fascinated by ancient forms of sound healing such as mantra meditation. "Mantras are used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism," he says. "There's science to show that chanting mantras such as 'OM', which produces vibrations, can have powerful effects on the brain."
After reading some 40 books, attending Buddhist retreats and speaking to people from traditional communities, Tony hypothesized that the vibrations produced by his "ranting and raging" were vital for the effect it had on his migraine.
Through trial and error, he then worked on developing a "packaged method" for his migraine, using a vibration vocalization technique he had learned at theater school.
Tony eventually settled upon a method that involves humming at a particular frequency—140 Hz— in a rhythmic sequence interspersed with nasal breathing. "This frequency is near to that of the OM sound, also known as 'the sound of creation,'" says Tony.
"It's also equivalent to the sound of the mother's body when the baby is in the womb. It's comforting and reassuring."
Tony found that he was able to successfully use this method in the early stages of a migraine to prevent it developing into a full-blown attack.
Impressed with his findings, Tony, who was awarded a British Empire Medal this year for services to health charities, happened to mention them to John Stein, Emeritus Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, whom he had worked with some years ago when Stein set up the Dyslexia Research Trust. "He told me the method was plausible," said Tony, "and that I should find out if it works for other people."
Tony took this on board and, with the help of third-year undergraduates at Oxford University, set about testing whether his humming technique helped with other people's migraines. Although it wasn't a formal clinical trial, Tony managed to amass some impressive anecdotal evidence showing that the technique worked for others in the same way it worked for him. "More than 200 people have tried the humming technique," claims Tony, "and most of them found it beneficial."
Indeed, Tony can talk at length about many of the individuals he claims to have helped, including a vocal coach (see box, below) and an obstetrician.
There is, of course, the potential for the placebo effect to play a role—when a person's belief in a treatment is responsible for an effect rather than the treatment itself. But Tony is keen to investigate his method further, and, encouraged by Professor Stein, is looking to conduct a controlled clinical trial in India later this year (see www.oxfordmigrainelabs.com for updates).
Still, the method is natural, non-invasive, simple to do and completely free, so Tony believes that if you're a migraine sufferer, you should give it a try. And although the method is designed as an 'intervention' when a migraine hits, Tony claims to have been migraine-free for several years now thanks to his technique.
The migraine method
The method is designed to be used as a migraine "intervention"—that is, a method to stop an attack when one strikes rather than to prevent migraines in the first place. It's said to work best when used in the early stages of a migraine, known as the "prodromal phase," when sufferers experience warning signs such as irritability, excessive yawning, food cravings and sensitivities to light or sound. Consult with your doctor if you are taking any medication or have underlying health conditions.
How to hum
Hum with your upper and lower jaw held lightly together (not clenched), teeth touching. The hum should come from the back of the throat and be 140 Hz. You can use a pitchpipe set to low C sharp to get the right sound frequency. Try to hum with a regular rhythm throughout the exercise.
1) Hum for 10 seconds
2) Take a deep breath in through the nose
3) On the exhale, hum again for 10 seconds
4) Repeat this until you have done 10 hums, taking deep breaths in through the nose after each hum
5) Rest for 2 minutes
6) Repeat the sequence of 10-second hums 10 times, followed by a 2-minute rest
7) Repeat the sequence one more time (so you've done three sets of 10-second hums, 10 times each set, with a 2-minute rest in between)
8) Rest for 10 minutes
9) The entire exercise should take about 10 minutes, followed by 10 minutes rest at the end
Tony Bateson's humming hypothesis sounded plausible to Professor John Stein, an electrophysiologist who has extensively studied deep brain stimulation.
"I look at oscillations in the brain and how they correspond to pain," says Professor Stein. "It's possible to get rid of pain by taking control of these oscillations, for example, in the case of phantom limb pain.
The hypothesis I had was that if you could use an acoustic signal to produce an oscillation with a frequency opposite to that causing the migraine, in principle, you might be able to get rid of it. I've always encouraged Tony to do a clinical trial to try to find out."
Stein points out that there is a lot of evidence showing acoustic frequencies can have effects on the brain, for example OM chanting1 and mantra meditation.2 "The question is, what that effect is and how you can adapt it for conditions like migraine," he says.
Managing migraine naturally
Migraine, the third most common disease in the world and the seventh most disabling,1 can cause not just severe headaches, but also nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and increased sensitivity to light and sound. While prescription drugs like methysergide, sumatriptan and ergotamine are available to treat the condition, they come with a long list of side-effects, from dizziness and drowsiness to chest pain and high blood pressure. Here are some effective natural options to consider.
Figure out food allergies. Certain foods and drinks have been linked to migraines, especially cheese, chocolate, red wine and beer. Keep a food diary to pinpoint potential triggers and try cutting them from your diet.2
Go for coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Taking this vitamin-like antioxidant may cut the number of migraines you get in half.3
Try magnesium. Not getting enough of the mineral is linked to migraine, and supplementing with the mineral can reduce the frequency of attacks.4
Bet on butterbur. A standardized extract of butterbur (Petasites hybridus) can significantly reduce migraine frequency.5
Try 5-HTP. This naturally occurring amino acid was just as effective as methysergide in one study.6
Vocal coach and music producer Jayl De Lara, 57, learned Tony's humming method six years ago to deal with his migraines, which he'd suffered from for many years. "When an attack came on, I'd feel sick, shaky, hot and cold and have a sense of euphoria that's hard to explain," says Jayl. "I'd often have to lie down in a darkened room and would be wiped out for two to three days. It was nasty."
Being a singing teacher, Tony's method made "perfect sense" to Jayl. "I've worked with people with autism, depression, multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue, and I know that singing and humming can be a powerful therapy," he says. "It makes you feel good."
Jayl quickly picked up Tony's humming technique, easily finding the low C sharp note, and found that by using it he was able to fend off his migraines in the early stages of an attack. He still uses it today and has even taught it to others.
"The only times it doesn't stop an attack is when I don't do it early enough," says Jayl. "I'm sure people will say it's mumbo jumbo. But it worked for me."
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