Meditation for Migraine Prevention

Woman meditating on rooftop
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Meditation may be an effective way to deal with migraine headaches. Frequently aligned with mindfulness, yoga, and other mind-body techniques being touted as powerful players in pain management, there's a growing body of research to show that a regular meditation practice may help prevent certain migraine triggers and even bring about beneficial physical changes in the brain.

If you've never meditated before, you may find the idea of sitting still for a prolonged period of time daunting—and it can be difficult in the beginning to learn how to turn off your thoughts and simply just be. There are many different meditation techniques, though, and so you may be surprised to find one that there's at least one you can master and even enjoy—especially if it helps you deal with migraine pain.

Benefits of Meditation

In studies, a regular meditation practice may be effective for dealing with migraine headaches in a number of ways:

Stress management. Tension, stress, and anxiety are common migraine triggers. Meditation may help to alleviate these emotions by inhibiting the part of the nervous system that's responsible for them, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF). Research has found that meditation also can have a positive impact on heart rate, which tends to increase during stress.

Brain growth. People with migraine headaches have been found to have less grey matter than those who don't, which may be a result of frequent migraines. Areas of the brain most affected by this consequence of frequent migraines are those involved in emotion, perception, memory, and decision-making, and also executive functions like self-regulation, working memory, and problem-solving.

A number of studies have found that meditation can increase the amount of grey matter in the brain. For example, a 2010 study found that people who practice Zen meditation have thicker grey matter and also were less sensitive to pain. What's more, the longer a subject had been meditating, the more grey matter he or she had.

Improving/balancing levels of neurotransmitters. For many people, brain chemical imbalances and poor sleep are key players in migraines. Meditation has been found to have positive effects on certain important neurotransmitters. Specifically, meditation can increase dopamine (responsible for executive function), melatonin (the body's sleep-wake regulator), and serotonin (involved in positive emotions), and decreases the "fight or flight chemicals, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

Pain relief. Meditation has been looked at specifically to determine its effects on migraine pain. In one small but significant study (that will likely be a springboard for further research), 10 people with episodic migraines (fewer than 15 per month) participated in a standardized, eight-week meditation practice called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). They were compared to a group nine subjects who followed their usual care for episodic migraine.

What the Study Found

The people who did MBSR had headaches less often and also experienced positive changes in "headache severity, duration, self‐efficacy, perceived stress, migraine‐related disability/impact, anxiety, depression, mindfulness, and quality of life," the researchers reported.

A Meditation For Migraines

The many types of meditation fall roughly into two main types: concentration meditation (focusing on a single, particular object, such as a candle) and mindfulness meditation—paying attention to whatever is going on in the present moment and noticing and then dismissing any thoughts that come up.

No single form of meditation has been singled out as best for migraine pain, but mindfulness meditation is the type often used in studies, is easy to learn, and just a few minutes a day can be beneficial. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. This is especially key for beginners; advanced meditators often can practice anywhere.
  2. Settle yourself. You can sit cross-legged on a cushion and even lean back slightly against a wall. It's also fine to sit upright in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. The important thing is to be comfortable but not so relaxed that you might fall asleep.
  3. Rest your hands on your thighs and close your eyes.
  4. Focus your attention on your breathing, but don't try breathe in a particular way. Just notice how the air comes in and out. Don’t worry if your breathing changes.
  5. Whenever random thoughts pop up (and the will—frequently), notice them and let them go, making a point to refocus on your breathing.
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