While migraines can sometimes be mistaken for a bad headache, they're much more in reality. According to the American Migraine Foundation¹, migraines are a "disabling neurological disease" that affects at least 39 million people in the US.
Like many other diseases, every person's experience with migraines is unique. Likewise, treatment options for one individual may not work as well for another. One migraine treatment option that is becoming more frequently used due to its effectiveness and simplicity is meditation.
Here's what you need to know about how practicing mindfulness can help you prevent migraine pain, in addition to talking to your doctor about migraine treatment options.
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A migraine is a moderate to severe headache typically experienced on one side of your head. It's estimated that about one out of every 15 men and one out of every five women are affected by migraines. Each individual may experience migraines differently, with some people developing migraines occasionally while others could have several in one week.
The different types of migraines include:
In this case, recognizable warning signs will occur right before the migraine occurs, such as seeing bright or flashing lights.
This is the most common migraine, which occurs without any specific warning signs.
Also called a "silent migraine," the aura and migraine symptoms occur without the headache.
Migraine symptoms can vary from person to person. Common symptoms of migraines include:
Pain in your head can range from moderate to severe. It can manifest as throbbing, pulsating, or pounding. This pain can occur on one side of your head or all around it, in the front or the back, and around or behind your eyes and cheeks.
Sensitivity to light, noise, and/or scents
Head pain that inhibits your ability to perform normal daily tasks, such as going to school or work
No one knows what causes migraines, although they're believed to be caused by genetic and environmental factors, including chemical imbalances in your brain.
Common triggers for migraines include:
Hormonal changes. Women will often experience migraine headaches before or after their menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or menopause. Likewise, hormonal medications, such as oral contraceptives, can initiate and worsen migraine pain.
Drinks, particularly those that contain caffeine or alcohol
Getting too much or not enough sleep
Weather changes, such as a shift in barometric pressure
Foods, particularly ones that are processed or contain additives
Sensory factors, such as loud sounds, bright or flashing lights, or strong smells
Migraines can happen to anyone, regardless of their age or medical history. While this is true, certain factors could make you more likely to experience one. These include:
Being a woman (women are 3x more likely to get migraines than men)
Having family members who also get migraines
Having other medical conditions, such as sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, or epilepsy
Meditation, also referred to as mindfulness, is a technique used to help you focus your attention on the present moment. More specifically, meditation aims to help you focus on specific parts of your body, thoughts, and sensations instead of random thoughts that come into your mind.
You can use meditation to help you relax physically, feel calmer, manage illnesses, improve psychological problems, and enhance your overall well-being. While meditation can take on many forms, four essential elements make up most mindfulness practices:
A quiet, distraction-free location
An intentional, comfortable position, such as lying down, sitting, or walking
A specific focal point for your attention, such as an object, word(s), or sensation
A receptive attitude that lets distractions freely come and go without judgment
There is no cure for migraines, but there are steps that you can take to address your symptoms and reduce or prevent attacks from occurring in the future. Along with taking medications prescribed by your healthcare provider, resting, drinking plenty of fluids, and placing a cool cloth or ice pack on your forehead may help you feel better when you are experiencing a migraine.
The best way to treat a migraine is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Studies show that meditation may be able to reduce the severity and frequency of your migraines by helping you:
Stress, anxiety, and tension are often associated with triggering migraines. Meditation can help minimize the effect of these triggers by inhibiting them. Likewise, meditating may improve your cardiovascular health, improve sleep quality, and promote a better psychological resilience to stress.
Migraines are frequently triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain and a lack of regular quality sleep. Meditation may be able to combat these issues by increasing your dopamine, melatonin, and serotonin levels. Additionally, mindfulness has also been attributed to lowering cortisol and norepinephrine.
As a result, you're more likely to sleep better, feel better, and ward off migraines.
Research² indicates that individuals who experience migraines may have less of the neural brain tissue that processes information, including perception, emotions, memory, and functions, such as working memory, self-regulation, and problem-solving.
The good news is that studies³ show that meditating may be able to increase your amount of gray matter and decrease your sensitivity to pain.
One study⁴ that used mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to address the pain intensity and quality of life of individuals who experience chronic headaches showed that participants who meditated for 90 minutes every day for eight weeks reported less pain and overall improved quality of life, indicating that meditation could be an effective alternative treatment to treat and manage pain.
Besides being an effective way to treat, manage, and prevent migraine pain, meditation is a practical tool that can be easily incorporated into daily routines for most people. It's easy to learn, only takes minutes to complete, and can be adapted to suit your unique lifestyle.
If you've never practiced mindfulness before, here are some tips to help you get started:
Pick a location to meditate that is quiet and away from distractions. As you practice meditating more, you may be able to do it anywhere, regardless of the noise level. However, in the beginning, you must be able to focus and be present.
Choose a comfortable and calming position but not so relaxing that you fall asleep. This could include leaning back against a wall, sitting cross-legged on a pillow, or sitting straight up in a chair with your two feet planted flat on the floor.
Place your hands on your thighs and keep your eyes closed.
Draw all of your attention to how you're breathing, being sure not to breathe any particular way other than what feels natural. Focus on the air coming in and going out of your lungs. If your breathing changes, don't worry.
When random thoughts inevitably come into your mind, let them go, then return your focus to your breathing.
Migraines often go undiagnosed and, as a result, may never gain the attention of a medical professional. If you suffer from migraines regularly, it can be helpful to write down when you have an attack, what you were doing when it occurred, and what you did to treat it. Doing so can help you discover any patterns that may be triggering your migraines and what treatment options work best for you, including meditation.
If you're having difficulty managing and preventing your migraine symptoms on your own, it's important to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Migraines are a common health concern that affects millions of Americans every year. While there is currently no cure for migraine pain, there are proactive steps you can take to minimize your migraine symptoms and reduce your chances of experiencing an attack in the future.
By practicing mindfulness regularly, you can not only improve your sleep habits, reduce stress, and enhance your overall well-being, but you may also experience less severe migraine pain and fewer attacks.
What is migraine? | American Migraine Foundation