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Scalp Popping, TikTok's Migraine Relief Trend: Safe or Risky?

The dangerous trend of scalp popping, originating on TikTok, has gained millions of viewers over the years through viral videos. This practice involving pulling one's hair is said to relieve migraine headaches anecdotally. However, it's crucial to delve into the scientific understanding behind the alleged migraine relief associated with scalp popping.

How is scalp popping performed?

Scalp popping is performed by taking a small section of hair close to the scalp. Hair is curled around a finger to create tension. Next, the hair is pulled vigorously so that it creates a popping sound, which is also termed hair cracking. Some people start hair pulling near the forehead and then gradually work their way to the back of the head. On TikTok, content creators do scalp popping by themselves or to each other.

This procedure traces its origins to Peru and other South American countries, where traditional healers used scalp-popping techniques for treating headaches. This technique was meant for relieving headaches, in particular migraine or tension-type headaches. Traditionally, both the headache itself and hair pulling are referred to as Chucaque.

Why do people use scalp popping?

Migraine affects more than 1.1 billion people worldwide. A migraine is an episodic headache that runs a chronic course. Apart from risk factors such as obesity, hormonal fluctuations, and stress, everyday choices such as excessive caffeine, lack of sleep, and smoking can act as triggers for migraine headaches.

Given its chronic, unpredictable course, and the healthcare expenses associated, people are looking for inexpensive and alternative methods as a solution to migraines. Patients are often willing to try any home remedy. However, it is important to exercise caution while choosing an alternative therapy.

Content creators claim that scalp popping can ease headaches and migraines. However, these scalp-popping claims seen on TikTok are not backed by science, and extensive research is necessary before we adopt it as a potential treatment. When done on self, scalp popping can give a head popping sensation or hair ripped out of scalp sensation, which is simply not safe.

Risks of scalp popping

The human scalp serves an important function as a protective barrier from trauma and potential pathogens. The human scalp has five layers:

Layers of the scalp
  1. Skin. It contains hair follicles and sebaceous glands.
  2. Connective tissue layer. It contains blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerves.
  3. Galea aponeurotica. This is an immobile connective tissue.
  4. Loose areolar connective tissue. This tissue is flexible and helps in the mobility of the scalp.
  5. Pericranium. It is the deepest immobile layer of connective tissue.

Scalp popping affects these layers of connective tissues and may lead to microbleeds. Repeated hair-pulling can also cause local patchy baldness. This affects the patient’s appearance and thereby self-esteem.

Lack of scientific evidence

Doctors on TikTok and other social media have voiced their concerns and repeatedly asked people to avoid methods such as scalp popping. At present, there are no research studies done to study the effectiveness of scalp popping in migraine relief.

Considering that scalp popping is a manual therapy, we reviewed the evidence about other manual therapies. A systematic review study examined how manual therapies can help patients with migraine. These manual therapies were acupuncture, massage therapy, physical therapy, and spinal manipulation. The review concluded that although the initial results are promising, more robust studies with large sample sizes and academic rigor are necessary. Currently, manual therapies are not a part of standard care. Talk to your doctor before you consider trying scalp popping or any manual therapy.

Myths about scalp popping

Several myths are associated with scalp popping, and it is high time that these myths are debunked.

Scalp popping is a medically approved migraine treatment

No, scalp popping is not a medically approved migraine treatment. In a consensus statement, headache specialists have recommended drugs such as NSAIDs (Diclofenac), triptans (Sumatriptan), and gepants (Ubrogepant). These drugs are prescribed by the doctor and are to be taken as recommended.

Scalp popping can cure migraines completely

No, migraine is an episodic disease that keeps recurring until middle age and then often gradually goes away. Patients need to manage episodes with medical guidance. There is no scientific evidence that scalp popping cures migraines completely.

Everyone can safely perform scalp popping at home

No, scalp popping should not be performed at home. It’s dangerous. Individuals who prefer to follow traditional healing practices are tempted to find an experienced, trained, and skilled healer. However, since there are no randomized clinical trials done to test the effectiveness of scalp popping, it is best avoided.

Pulling hair from the scalp has no negative consequences

No, pulling hair from the scalp can lead to patchy hair loss and bleeding in connective tissues.

Alternative methods for fast migraine relief

Research-based alternative methods may offer migraine relief. For instance, mindfulness-based techniques have shown promising results in reducing migraine headaches. Patients with migraine participated in an 8-week guided mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT program). At the end of the program, they were able to identify their triggers early on and better manage their migraine episodes.

Another remedy option is cold therapy. In this therapy, an ice mask, ice pack, or cold shower is used to potentially relieve migraine headaches. Cold therapy when administered for less than 20 minutes creates a numbing sensation and helps in calming the nervous system.

Botanical remedies such as turmeric are useful to reduce inflammation and thereby may support migraine headaches. Turmeric has an active ingredient called 'curcumin.' An 8-week randomized clinical trial compared the effects of placebo and curcumin capsules in patients with migraine. Patients in the curcumin group reported a significant reduction in the duration and severity of migraine episodes.

In summary, scalp popping is a trend started on TikTok, which is not yet backed by scientific evidence. Scalp popping does not cure migraine completely. Patients should follow the treatment recommended by their doctor. Alternative therapies that have some scientific support, such as cold therapy, might be safer options to relieve migraine symptoms.

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