In the U.S., more than 38 million people suffer with migraine headaches, with some estimates suggesting that this number may be even higher, impacting as many as 50 million or more.
Some migraine studies estimate that 12 percent of adults in the U.S. population have occasional migraine headaches, and four million have chronic migraines.1
What’s more, an estimated 90 percent of migraine sufferers miss work or can’t function normally during a migraine attack.
I know a few folks who suffer greatly from this disease, so I was eager to dive into the results of a recent clinical trial on a natural therapy that offers real hope.
Here’s what I discovered…
According to Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.D., an associate professor of neurology, mindfulness can be a valuable tool in tackling migraine pain.
Dr. Wells notes that at a time when opioids are still being used to treat migraines, finding safe nondrug options is paramount. Some medications can help prevent migraines, but for some patients it’s just not enough.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation and gentle yoga may really help. But why?
They are particularly effective in reducing responses to stress, which is the most common migraine trigger, Dr. Wells and her co-researchers posit.
Migraine Sufferers Improve Quality of Life
Dr. Wells and her team recruited 89 individuals who suffered between four to 20 “migraine days” a month.
Then they randomly assigned half to an eight-week mindfulness program. The other half received education about migraines. Both groups continued with their standard medications.
Besides engaging in mindfulness practices two hours per week for eight weeks, people in the mindfulness group received online resources encouraging daily practice.
Their counterparts in the headache education group received instruction on headaches, triggers, stress and treatment approaches.
Three months later, both groups reported two fewer migraines per month.
However, according to Dr. Wells, the mindfulness group was doing better in other ways.
This group gave improved ratings to their quality of life, including a reduction of depression symptoms and in migraine-induced disability.
“Those outcomes are very important to patients’ lives,” Dr. Wells notes.
Additionally, the researchers implemented an experimental pain test.
Participants in the mindfulness group demonstrated decreased perceptions of pain intensity and unpleasantness compared to the other group.
The authors note that mindfulness practices may help people learn a new way of processing or perceiving pain or stress.
Dr. Wells says these secondary outcomes in the mindfulness group were “quite striking.” She authored a study on her findings that was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Other Support For Mindfulness
What is it about this mind-body practice that helps migraine sufferers so much?
Daniel Cherkin, PhD, Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, offered his opinion in an accompanying commentary to the study.4
Dr. Cherkin’s past research found mindfulness can help people with chronic lower back pain.
He says it’s not that mindfulness makes the pain go away. Instead, Dr. Cherkin believes it helps people first become aware of their habitual reactions to pain. For example, do they ruminate or “catastrophize”? The next step, he says, is to learn how to “reframe” how they interpret the pain and what it means.
According to Dr. Cherkin, the mind and body interact and are deeply connected.
Besides that, he says, it’s empowering for people to engage in their own care.
Dr. Wells says more research is needed to see what happens with her study participants in the long run. But in this clinical trial the improvements in the mindfulness group held up over nine months.
She points out that the general principles of mindfulness include living in the present moment rather than ruminating – i.e. dwelling on our problems, brooding on them, if you will.
I’m all for finding additional nondrug tools to relieve chronic pain, especially for those who suffer from frequent migraines.
But whether you suffer from migraines or something else, mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga are helpful for all of us. And fortunately, there’s plenty of free online guidance out there to help.
Here’s a great starting place: https://americanmigrainefoundation.org