Yoga as a Treatment for Migraines: Does it Help?

Search “yoga and migraines” on the internet and you will see thousands of web pages appear instantly. Each page illustrates various physical poses, breathing exercises, and relaxation methods that you can use to relieve migraine pain.

Using yoga as a means to manage chronic pain is not a new idea. But what does the research say specifically about practicing yoga as a treatment for migraines?

What is a migraine?

First off, it is important to understand what a migraine is. For those of you lucky enough not to experience them, migraines are a debilitating headache disorder characterized by a number of physical symptoms, including pounding pain, nausea, numbness, photophobia (sensitivity to light), and phonophobia (sensitivity to sound). Migraineurs may also experience an aura – visual disturbances such as colors, lights, or waves – before an attack.

These symptoms, along with the pain severity, are what distinguish migraines from normal headaches. The frequency of migraine attacks vary. People who experience migraines one to 14 days per month are “episodic migraineurs”, whereas those who experience migraines more than 15 days per month are “chronic migraineurs”.

Currently, around 38 million Americans suffer from migraines. However, this number is probably low due to the fact that many migraineurs never receive a formal diagnosis. Even with these statistics, migraine sufferers still experience high costs for medical services, little support, and limited access to quality care.

This is namely due to the fact that migraines remain a poorly understood disease. Researchers are not sure what causes a migraine, but studies suggest that an imbalance in patients’ autonomic nervous system, along with heightened stress, may contribute to some of it’s debilitating symptoms.

The benefits of stress reduction

So what role does yoga play in mitigating migraine pain?

Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices that originated over 5,000 years ago in ancient India. Today, there are a broad range of yoga practices that include physical poses, breathing exercises, and relaxation or mediation.

One of the key health attributes of yoga is its ability to reduce stress. A 2014 study examined the effects of an eight-week mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) course on 19 adults with migraines. Specifically, researchers assessed whether reducing stress through yoga and meditation would also reduce patients’ migraine pain.

Results showed that migraineurs experienced 1.4 fewer migraines per month after completing the program. Participants also experienced improved self-efficacy and less migraine-related disability in their daily lives.

Improved internal balance

Another 2014 study examined yoga’s impact on improving autonomic balance in migraine patients. Sixty migraine patients were randomly split into two groups: group one underwent conventional care, and group two had conventional care plus yoga therapy. The conventional group was assigned a daily headache diary for six weeks. The yoga group received yoga therapy five days a week for six weeks in addition to their daily headache diaries. Headache diaries included the number of headache episodes, headache intensity, and medications used. Patients also had their autonomic functions recorded, which included breathing signals, the heart’s electrical activity, and heart rate variability.

Researchers discovered headache frequency and intensity were significantly reduced for patients in the yoga group. These patients also exhibited reduced heart rate and improved vagal tone, which refers to the amount of activity in the nervous system. The nervous system plays a vital role in sustaining overall wellness. The stronger your vagal tone, the stronger your body is at regulating key organ functions.

A 2015 study saw the same results, where headache intensity and frequency, anxiety and depression scores, and medication use were significantly lower in the yoga group compared to the control group.

Yoga as a holistic treatment method

Yoga is not an all-encompassing fix to migraines. Any individual who has experienced them knows that migraines are extremely overwhelming and require a multitude of treatment methods.

Instead, research indicates that patients can use yoga in addition to their normal treatment routine. It’s ability to release tension, reduce stress, and improve nervous system balance and bodily circulation can provide migraineurs with another helpful remedy to use during those difficult days.

Click here to watch a video of different yoga techniques you can use to ease your migraine pain.

Helen Santoro

Posted by Helen Santoro

Helen graduated from Hamilton College in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience. She is currently involved in an fMRI study looking at children, adolescents and young adults who suffer from post-concussive headaches.

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