The Effect of Yoga on Migraines

Yoga is one of the most common exercise techniques studied as a potential strategy in migraine management. Yoga utilizes a variety of purposeful physical exercises, with an emphasis on balance and breathing, often combined with meditation.

The research about the effects of yoga on migraines has been promising, and evidence suggests that regularly participating in guided yoga practice may reduce the frequency and severity of migraines for some people.

Yoga's Effect on the Body

Yoga practice includes sessions that involve physical movements, attention to breathing, and mindfulness. A yoga session may focus more heavily on any of these three components, which combine to affect both mind and body:

  • Exercises: Yoga involves physical challenges such as maintaining balance, making slow and sustained changes in posture, and stretching. The physical effects can include improved muscle strength, control, and postural stability.
  • Breathing: Yoga often involves deep breathing, pacing your breathing, and deliberate attention to breathing. This is intended to improve oxygen supply and to build consistent breathing habits.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness essentially encompasses being calmly aware of one's emotions, bodily states, sensations, thoughts, consciousness, and environment within a given moment. Mindfulness during yoga practice is intended to create a habit of mindfulness throughout everyday life, which can help reduce stress.

How Yoga May Affect Migraines

There have been several studies assessing the impact of yoga on migraines. These studies typically span about a three-month time period, with participants attending supervised yoga sessions several times per week.

Results generally point to a positive impact on headaches, clinical features, and quality of life when participants who had migraines are compared to control groups (people who had migraines but did not have yoga as an intervention).

Keep in mind that all of the studies that looked at the effect of yoga on migraines involved participation in guided classes with an instructor, and not use of home videos or self-guided techniques.

How It Works

The physical and mental control used in yoga is believed to play a role in migraine reduction. Though the exact physiologic mechanism of this effect is not well understood at this time, there are some expert-supported possibilities:

  • Stretching is believed to help alleviate some of the muscle stiffness that can contribute to migraines and other headaches.
  • An overall sense of calmness is believed to result from regularly participating in yoga sessions, which may help alleviate some of the stress that can trigger recurrent migraines.
  • It seems to be a combination of the breathing, meditation, and physical motions of yoga that work together to reduce migraines, rather than just one of these features.

There is evidence that when migraine reduction occurs along with regular yoga practice, there is an improved balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, which helps maintain better overall health.

It is not clear whether yoga alters the body's response to pain, and there is no evidence that yoga can induce changes in the structure of the brain or alter blood flow.

On a physiologic basis, there has also been attention focused on yoga's effects on vagal tone, sympathetic nervous system activity, and nitric oxide (NO) levels.

Vagal tone: Vagal tone describes the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and its neurotransmitters, which mediate the body's resting state, promoting digestion and optimizing cognitive skills such as memory. Yoga has been found to increase vagal tone.

Sympathetic nervous system: The sympathetic nervous system relies on neurotransmitters to activate the body's ability to carry out survival responses, such as running from danger. Yoga has been found to reduce sympathetic activity, which can alleviate excess strain on the heart, blood vessels, and liver, and has been associated with a reduction in migraine frequency.

NO: Elevated NO levels are associated with migraines and other illnesses; however, yoga has not been shown to have an impact on nitric oxide levels.

What to Watch Out For

In general, yoga is safe, but some people cannot participate due to physical limitations. If you have spine disease in your neck or back or bone instability, yoga may not be safe for you. Be sure to check with your doctor and yoga instructor if you aren't sure if you could physically tolerate yoga.

Also, keep in mind that yoga is used as a migraine prevention, not as a treatment. When you are having a migraine attack, physical movements—including inversions and even the slow movements of a yoga session—can exacerbate it.

A Word From Verywell

There is increasing interest in holistic and non-traditional prevention and treatment of headaches, such as massage, stress management, and acupuncture. Many times, these therapies are recommended along with migraine medications to help maximize pain relief.

While yoga and mindful meditation have the potential to be effective therapies for migraines, more studies need to be done to verify this effect.

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