Are you one of the 6-10% of the population suffer from migraines? I have good news — recent research shows that yoga can reduce the frequency and duration of your headaches.
I suffer from migraines, and believe me they are no fun! So much more than “just a headache,” a migraine can make life unbearable and sometimes the only thing you can do is crawl away into a dark room until it is over. As well as head pain, a migraine can bring nausea, vomiting, phono and photosensitivity (sensitivity to noise and light), diarrhoea, abdominal pain, flashing lights, tingling, dizziness and difficulty speaking. There is also something called a silent migraine where you get some of the symptoms I have listed but no headache.
Women are 3 times more likely to suffer from migraines than men with the hormonal changes of menopause often triggering them in later life. Apart from that, a whole raft of things are thought to cause migraines: certain foods, alcohol, lack of sleep, stress and anxiety. For me it’s stress, dehydration and lack of food (an unholy trinity!) or a few too many glasses of wine.
Conventional treatment options include medications, either to prevent migraines or to treat them when they occur, and advice to avoid triggering factors. However, even with this some migraine patients continue to suffer disabling headaches many times a month with consequent loss of quality of life and time away from work.
Here’s Some Good News
We already know that yoga is a powerful tool for managing stress and anxiety, so by relieving stress as a trigger yoga has real potential to help manage migraines. Yoga has also been shown to improve sleep patterns so it can address that side of things as well.
Being more specific though, one 2014 study of people whose migraines had a severe impact on their life found that a 6-week programme of yoga five times a week significantly reduced headache frequency and intensity. They used a combination of prānāyāma (breathing exercises), āsana (yoga poses), savasana (relaxation) and yoga nidra (yoga sleep) alongside normal conventional care (advice and medications). This result is particularly welcome as other forms of aerobic exercise can trigger a migraine and some sufferers err so the side of caution and avoid exertion completely — with all the unhealthy consequences of inactivity to compound the situation.
Another study from India also looked at āsana, prānāyāma and relaxation alongside meditation five times a week plus weekly jalaneti (nasal cleansing) and kapalabahti (breathing exercise with the emphasis on forced exhalation). The results showed improvements in frequency and duration of headaches, sleep quality, anxiety and depression in the group that had combined yoga and conventional medical therapy.
A Note on Mindfulness
An interesting paper that I read recently shows that a combination of mindfulness practices (eating, walking, breathing, body scanning) and yoga had beneficial outcomes in headache duration, disability, quality of life, anxiety and perceived stress with subjects reporting 1.4 fewer headaches per month. Most interesting was that there was a 0% dropout rate from the study with all participants having excellent compliance. This tells me that not only is the treatment effective but that your average person could fit it in with their everyday life making it a feasible option for migraine sufferers.
I am delighted to see that the research is showing what yoga teacher have known all along. Personally, I started yoga to regain my flexibility and soon started to notice how much better I felt. When I trained as a yoga teacher and started daily practice I noticed that my migraines were coming less often which was a wonderful bonus! I now find that if life gets busy and my personal practice is squeezed into the background then back come the migraines. A very unwelcome reminder to prioritise my yoga over some of the other things on my to-do list.
What to Do on the Mat
The science says prāmāyāma, āsana, kriyas (cleansing practices) savasana, meditation and mindfulness — but what does that mean in practice?
- Try to do some prāmāyāma every day. This could be a few belly breaths as you centre yourself on the mat. Or some alternate nostril breathing after savasana. A couple of times a week I aim to do a full 20-30 minutes of prāmāyāma and kriyas finishing with a few minutes of mediation.
- It’s always important to do a mindful āsana practice. I’m sure traditional wisdom prescribes specific postures to benefit headaches, but I tend to be more intuitive in my selection of poses for any one day. I will usually do a warm up, some sun salutes (often with modifications thrown in), standing poses, sitting poses, an inversion and I never skip.
- End with a bit of meditation with a mindful body scan at the end of practice and try to find stillness to quiet the mind.
I don’t know whether this is the best approach for every one but it seems to suit me and my migraines so it could be a good place for you to start too. It may sound like rather a lot of yoga to fit into each day but remember that not all yoga happens on the mat. Deep breathing or meditation could even be done while you are on the train. How about mindfully walking to pick up the kids from school? You could do a few sun salutes instead of going for a run. Or, like I do, remind yourself that your wellbeing is more important than the hoovering.
I’d love to hear if you if you have anything to help us fellow sufferers — message me if you have any gems of wisdom that you use to keep the demon migraines at bay. Lets share the love and reduce the pain!