Improve Migraine Headaches with Spiritual Meditation
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that people are still using today to get headache relief. This mind-body practice seems to work by relieving stress associated with headache pain.” – Chris Iliades
Migraine headaches are a torment far beyond the suffering of a common headache. It is an intense throbbing pain usually unilateral, focused on only one side of the head and lasts from 4 hours to 3 days. They are actually a collection of neurological symptoms. Migraines often include: visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell, and tingling or numbness in the extremities or face. Migraines are the 8th most disabling illness in the world. In the U.S. they affect roughly 40 million men, women and children. While most sufferers experience attacks once or twice a month, 14 million people or about 4% have chronic daily headaches. Migraines are very disruptive to the sufferer’s personal and work lives as most people are unable to work or function normally when experiencing a migraine.
There is no known cure for migraine headaches. Treatments are targeted at managing the symptoms. Prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers are frequently used. There are a number of drug and drug combinations that appear to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. These vary in effectiveness but unfortunately can have troubling side effects and some are addictive. Behaviorally, relaxation and sleep appear to help lower the frequency of migraines. Mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce stress and improve relaxation. So, they may be useful in preventing migraines. Indeed, it has been shown that mindfulness practice can reduce headache pain.
There are a wide variety of meditation techniques. It is not known which kinds work best for migraine headaches. In today’s Research News article “Effect of Different Meditation Types on Migraine Headache Medication Use.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4600642/ ), Wachholtz and colleagues examine the effectiveness of spiritual focused vs. secular meditation techniques on treating migraine headaches. They recruited adult migraine sufferers who had at least 2 migraine headaches per month and who were naive to meditation. They were randomly assigned to one of four groups who meditated for 20 minutes per day for 30 days; Spiritual Meditation, Internally Focused Secular Meditation, Externally Focused Secular Meditation, or Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
The meditation techniques differed in a phrase that the participants repeated to themselves and used as a focus for their meditation during the 20-minute daily period. For the Spiritual Meditation group the participants chose one of four phrases; “God is peace,” “God is joy,” God is good,” and “God is love.” For the Secular Internal Meditation group the participants chose either; “I am content,” “I am joyful,” “I am good,” “I am happy.” For the Secular External Meditation group the participants chose either; “Grass is green,” “Sand is soft,” “Cotton is fluffy,” “Cloth is smooth.” The Relaxation group practiced progressive muscle relaxation, systematically tensing and relaxing muscles. Participants were measured before and after the 30 days of meditation for headache frequency, intensity, and usage of migraine medications, and for spiritual and religious experiences and activities. They also maintained daily headache diaries.
They found that while all groups showed some improvement in migraine frequency, the Spiritual Meditation groups had significantly greater improvement than the other groups. In addition, while all groups showed significant reduction in the use of migraine medications, the Spiritual Meditation groups had significantly greater reductions. There was, however, no change in the severity of the migraines. Hence, although there were fewer headaches, when they did occur they were just as intense as usual. It should be noted, however, that there wasn’t a no-treatment control. So, it is unclear that improvements would not have occurred without treatment.
The results suggest that meditation and relaxation, but especially spiritually focused meditation, can improve migraine frequency and medication use. Mindfulness practices, in the previous research have been shown to be effective in treating pain from a variety of sources including headaches. It is not clear, however, why meditating with a spiritual focus is superior to secular focused meditation or relaxation. Perhaps focusing on a greater power relieves the stress of searching for the sources of the headaches within the self or the environment, and the stress reduction, in turn, reduces the likelihood of a migraine.
So, improve migraine headaches with spiritual meditation.
“This kind of moment-to-moment, positive mindfulness is crucial for chronic pain sufferers. Pain is only ever exacerbated by depression and despair. And depression and despair most definitely intensify pain. Thus, the dark circle of chronic illness. Mindfulness can stop this cycle in its tracks by allowing the patient to take back control and climb out of the gloom, a single moment at a time. “ – Ashley Jonkman
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Wachholtz, A. B., Malone, C. D., & Pargament, K. I. (2017). Effect of Different Meditation Types on Migraine Headache Medication Use. Behavioral Medicine (Washington, D.C.), 43(1), 1–8. http://doi.org/10.1080/08964289.2015.1024601
Spiritual meditation has been found to reduce the frequency of migraines and physiological reactivity to stress. However, little is known about how introducing a spirituality component into a meditation intervention impacts analgesic medication usage. In this study, 92 meditation naïve participants were randomly assigned to four groups (Spiritual Meditation (N=25), Internally Focused Secular Meditation (N=23), Externally Focused Secular Meditation (N=22), Progressive Muscle Relaxation (N=22)) and practiced their technique for 20min/day over 30 days while completing daily diaries. Headache frequency, headache severity, and pain medication use were assessed. Migraine frequency decreased in the Spiritual Meditation group compared to other groups (p<.05). Headache severity ratings did not differ across groups (p=NS). After adjusting for headache frequency, migraine medication usage decreased in the Spiritual Meditation group compared to other groups (p<.05). Spiritual Meditation was found to not affect pain sensitivity, but it does improve pain tolerance with reduced headache related analgesic medication usage.