Migraine headaches and magnesium chloride

Migraine headaches last from four to 72 hours, are throbbing and of moderate to severe intensity.

by Dr. Carolyn Dean — 

Fewer than half of the estimated 30 million Americans who suffer from migraines receive accurate diagnoses, according to Robert B. Daroff, M.D., professor of neurology at Case School of Medicine and president of the American Headache Society. Patients and their doctors often mistake migraines for tension or sinus headaches. Because the treatments that might be effective for these diagnosed conditions are not effective for migraines, a missed diagnosis often leads to unnecessary discomfort and frustration.

A new study from researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City gave a simple survey to 443 patients with headache histories. More than 90 percent of those who answered “yes” to two of three key questions were found to have migraines. The questions the survey asked:

  • Has a headache limited your activities for one or more days in the last three months?
  • Are you nauseated when you have a headache?
  • Does light bother you when you have a headache?

This three-question test provides a quick and accurate guideline that can help physicians make a proper diagnosis. But this test is not a perfect diagnostic tool. For example, some patients who answer “yes” to two of the questions may turn out to have an underlying disease.

Caution is advised, because patients and physicians alike frequently confuse migraine with chronic sinusitis. Migraine symptoms — intense pain accompanied by nausea and/or visual disturbances, such as auras, in the absence of fever — are almost never caused by sinus infections.

Migraine headaches last from four to 72 hours, are throbbing and of moderate to severe intensity. They often are unilateral, become worse with exertion, are associated with vomiting, and cause a sensitivity to light, sound or smell. Migraines may occur at any age but usually begin between ages 10 and 40, and occur more often in women than in men. Headaches often partially or completely remit after age 50. More than 50 percent of patients have a family history of migraine.

Migraine mechanisms

The following biochemical events involving low magnesium have been identified in migraine sufferers and may set the stage for a migraine attack.

  • In non-menopausal women, estrogen rises before the period, causing a shift of blood magnesium into bone and muscles. As a result, magnesium levels in the brain are lowered.
  • When magnesium is low, it is unable to do its job to counteract the clotting action calcium exerts on the blood. Micro blood clots are thought to clog up the brain’s tiny blood vessels, leading to migraines. Several other substances that help create blood clots are increased when magnesium is too low.
  • Low brain magnesium promotes neurotransmitter hyperactivity and nerve excitation that can lead to headaches.

Several conditions that trigger migraines are also associated with magnesium deficiency, including pregnancy, alcohol intake, usage of some diuretic drugs, stress and menstruation.

Magnesium deficiency is related to migraines in many ways:

  • Relaxes blood vessels and allows them to dilate, reducing the spasms and constrictions that can cause migraines.
  • Regulates the action of brain neurotransmitters and inflammatory substances, which may play a role in migraines, when unbalanced.
  • Inhibits excess platelet aggregation, preventing the formation of tiny clots that can block blood vessels and cause pain.
  • Relaxes muscles and prevents the buildup of lactic acid, which, along with muscle tension, can worsen head pain.

A group of 3,000 patients who received 200 mg of magnesium daily had an 80 percent reduction in their migraine symptoms. Much of that research was done by Dr. Alexander Mauskop, director of the New York Headache Center, with Drs. Bella and Burton Altura, who had been studying migraines and treatments for more than 10 years. The Alturas’ team consistently found that people with migraine and many other types of headache were magnesium deficient, and that treating the deficiency alleviated headache pain.

When migraine sufferers with low magnesium ion levels received intravenous magnesium, they experienced complete alleviation of their symptoms. Subsequent studies of migraine patients confirmed a common pattern and a preventive/support role for magnesium deficiency in the development of headaches. The researchers found that infusion of magnesium resulted in a rapid, sustained relief of acute migraine. Because of an excellent safety profile and low cost, they recommend oral magnesium supplementation for migraine sufferers at a level of 6 mg/kg/day.

Another research team treated 81 patients who suffered ongoing migraine headaches with 300 mg of magnesium twice a day. The frequency of migraines was reduced by 41.6 percent in the magnesium group, but by only 15.8 percent in a control group that received placebos. The number of migraine days and pain also decreased significantly. High-dose oral magnesium taurate appears to be effective in treatment and prevention.

An exciting addition to the magnesium family is transdermal magnesium oil. It is not actually oil, but a supersaturated solution of magnesium chloride in water. Magnesium oil can be rubbed on the body and is readily absorbed through the skin. It helps to greatly increase the amount of ionic magnesium in body tissues and to overcome the problem some people have with loose stools when they take regular magnesium supplements. This can be important in cases of severe magnesium deficiency that are treated with IV magnesium.

The effective transdermal magnesium chloride dosage, using a 35 percent solution, is approximately 2.5 cc (1/2 teaspoon) or 1,750 mg applied to the skin daily. If the magnesium oil tingles or burns slightly, the oil can be diluted with distilled water. After about 30 minutes, most of the magnesium has been absorbed, so if it feels a bit itchy, it can be washed off.

Transdermal magnesium chloride is toxic only in cases of severe renal impairment with acidosis; in such cases, any excess magnesium chloride applied to the skin is excreted via the kidneys.


Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., has been in the forefront of health issues for 28 years. She has authored 12 books on health issues including The Magnesium Miracle. or 1-888-236-2108.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 6, December 2007/January 2008.

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