Yoga: An Alternative Therapy for Migraines

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yoga for migranes

I was probably eight years old when I experienced my first migraine headache.  It was a frightening combination of symptoms: extreme sensitivity to light and a visual field that was almost completely overtaken by large black spots (called an aura), followed by one-sided, intensely throbbing and unrelenting head pain, sometimes accompanied by nausea.   Over-the-counter medications didn’t touch the pain, though the visual aura usually subsided within about half an hour.

A migraine is a recurring, often disabling headache disorder that can last hours or days.  According to the Migraine Research Foundation, it is the third most prevalent illness in the world and the sixth most debilitating. Intense pain is the hallmark of a migraine.  Some people liken the sensation of a migraine to giving birth through your forehead, or having someone repeatedly jab an ice pick in your eye while beating the base of your skull with a baseball bat.

Seeking Relief

Over the years, various medications have been developed and prescribed to both arrest migraine symptoms in progress, and as a preventive therapy to reduce the frequency, severity, or duration of the headaches.

Unfortunately, many of the available drug treatments for migraine come with undesirable or dangerous side effects and are not generally recommended for children, pregnant women, or nursing mothers.  This has prompted some migraine sufferers to seek relief from alternative, non-pharmaceutical, mind-body therapies, such as yoga and meditation.

Going to the Mat

The practice of yoga, established some 5,000 years ago, involves a series of breathing techniques, postures, movements, relaxation techniques, and meditation designed to enhance and unite mind, body, and spirit.  Yoga is thought to calm the nervous system, and has also been found to have a beneficial effect on certain chemicals in the body and brain, including serotonin, which relays signals from one area of the brain to another and can affect mood, anxiety, and happiness.

Research Studies.  There are relatively few clinical trials that have explored the effectiveness of yoga or other complementary health approaches in the treatment of migraine, and the sample sizes in many of those studies have been small, but preliminary findings are promising.  One such study explored the effectiveness of an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course involving meditation and yoga in adults with migraines.  The subjects reported a modest decrease in the severity, frequency, and duration of their migraines, as well as a reduction in migraine-related disability, stress, depression, and anxiety.

Another research study, published in the International Journal of Yoga, compared clinical improvement in 30 patients with migraine who received conventional care with 30 patients with migraines who received conventional treatment and participated in yoga practice sessions five days a week for six weeks.  Both groups were instructed to keep a headache diary.  The results revealed that the group receiving the combined conventional and yoga treatment regimen experienced a greater reduction in the duration and intensity of migraines than did the patients receiving only conventional care.

Safety.  Yoga is generally considered to be a safe activity for most people, and the risk of serious injury is low as long as it is practiced under the guidance of a well-trained instructor. However, it’s always a good practice to talk with your health care provider before embarking on an alternative treatment regimen.  Additionally, there are certain medical conditions for which yoga practice is not advised or should be modified.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you are regularly experiencing the signs and symptoms of migraine, you may wish to seek the advice of a physician. As a general rule, individuals with migraine experience at least two of the following symptoms:

  • unilateral (one-sided) headache
  • throbbing sensation
  • pain that worsens with activity
  • headache of moderate to severe intensity

In addition, migraine sufferers experience at least one of the following:

  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and sound

Affected individuals may also exhibit food cravings and alterations in mood or behavior.  Migraines are often further classified as episodic (occurring more than 15 days per month) or chronic (occurring more than 15 days per month).

If possible, prior to your appointment, keep a record of your migraine attacks, noting the intensity, frequency, and duration of the episodes, as well as any treatment regimen you have tried, along with its effect, if any.  Also note any major stresses, life upheavals, or dietary changes that coincided with the attack, and be prepared to provide your doctor with a list of all medications, supplements, or vitamins you are taking, including dosages.

Your doctor will tailor your treatment regimen according to the nature of your headaches, including the frequency and duration of each episode, the degree of disability you experience, and any other medical conditions and drug regimens currently present or in use.

When combined with conventional treatment modalities, yoga’s stress relieving and tension-busting properties, as well as its positive effects on circulation and nervous system balance, may have a beneficial effect on the frequency, duration, and severity of migraines.

If you are a CDPHP member, be sure to check out the list of free wellness classes, including yoga, that may be available in your area.

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