Chronic migraines are like a huge bear gnawing on your head, day after day, often responding to painkillers as if you were shooting him with a popgun.
Which makes Ann Fielder's simple fix for migraines seem almost too simple to believe: She puts teensy tacks in four places on one ear and leaves them in place for several weeks.
Fielder, an Ashland acupuncturist, explains that the ear is like a micro-keyboard with many points that, when stimulated by the tiny pricks, signal the brain to send endorphins to the painful area and find new routes through the nervous system and brain that liberate you from the incredibly painful, often sickening attacks of migraine.
"I'd tried everything, all my life," says Shawnee Dale, 29, of Central Point. "It was amazing from the first, a dramatic difference in the pain level. It's a whole new world for me. I feel great and empowered."
Dale had migraines since she was a little girl, and they got a lot worse with the hormones of childbirth three years ago, leading to missing lots of work — and feeling skewed by medications on the job (which involved lots of public contact), a situation, she says, that just couldn't go on.
Posted on the wall of Fielder's serene office, in the new Clear Creek section of Ashland, is a map of the zillions of "points" on the ear that have been determined by the ancient Chinese and verified by modern science at UCLA to correlate to every organ, muscle and potential trouble spot, including the ones causing sciatica, acid reflux, frequent night urination by seniors and addictions of all sorts, including narcotics, alcohol and nicotine.
Part of what makes migraines so devilish (besides the sheer pain), is that they are believed to be hereditary, not emotional, which makes you feel like you can't do anything to combat their wicked force. And, says Fielder, they get "triggered" by the weirdest things — such as stress, lack of sleep, some foods, alcohol, periods, fluorescent lighting, cigarettes, chemical fumes, low-pressure weather and sex.
Migraines come with a bizarre array of symptoms: not just head pain, but vertigo, temperature changes, tingling, slurred speech, nausea, light sensitivity, vision problems. And they leave a hangover — "the blahs" — for days, says Fielder.
Seeking a solution from mainstream medicine, Dale says she was put on a trial regimen of pharmaceuticals over many years, looking for the one that could best diminish pain, but the drugs produced a storm of dizzying side effects.
"I was at my wits' end," she notes. "I took so much ibuprofen, four every four to six hours every day, just to take the edge off. It wasn't healthy. I knew it would damage my liver. I became demobilized at work. I was missing a lot of work and using up sick time."
It was also eating into Dale's role as a mom, she notes. She would come home, unable to cook or play with her small son, and the pain put a "big strain" on her marriage. Migraines, she says, force the partner to take care of the house and children, even though he, too, was just getting home from work.
"He saw a huge difference right away and encouraged the treatment. He's happy to see a full-functioning person now," says Dale. "It's hard to see a partner, especially the mother of your children, in this kind of pain."
Ear tacks are called auriculotherapy — working with the auricula or external part of the ear. Putting tacks in your outer ear is not painful but feels only tingly, like hitting your funny bone, says Dale.
It's an ancient science, dating back at least to 500 B.C. in Egypt, Persia, China and Rome, then moving to Europe in the 16th century, says Fielder.
With new patients, Fielder starts by palpating the ear to see which parts are tender, a clue to what part of the body needs help, she says. She takes medical history and starts with a standard "tuneup," using acupuncture needles on various parts of the body.
The fix can include tiny patches (smaller than a pea) with either a ball ("ear seed") or pin stimulating the ear points.
"You wear them three to six days at a time and change them on office visits, going for four to eight weeks," says Fielder. "Once the brain gets the message, it activates nerve reflexes and release of biochemicals, such as endorphins, our natural painkiller.
It's mysterious, seemingly almost magical, but it works, says Fielder, because the nervous system runs on electrical energy.
"It's wired. Acupuncture needles and tacks act like antennae to route signals where they need to go to communicate with the brain," says Fielder.
The most well-known use of ear tacks in the profession is not for migraines but for treatment of drugs, booze and smoking. The tacks greatly curb cravings, which for smokers come from the simple desire for a break outside from work or from oral fixations, she says.
"After using the tacks for smoking, most report they will take a puff, but it doesn't taste good and they will put it out," says Fielder.
"The only side effects are you sleep better, have an increased sense of well-being, heightened immunity and relief from stress."
"What I feel from it," says Dale, "is that I'm a calmer person, more centered, especially in intense situations."
Fielder practices acupuncture at Clear Creek Healing Arts in Ashland and Three Treasures Chinese Medicine in Medford. She can be reached at 541-488-1767.