A migraine is a neurovascular condition that is described as a debilitating and recurring headache. It is often accompanied by vomiting and some sensory sensitivities.
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It has been reported that 20% of the people who have migraines turn to prescription medication for relief which is not always effective in all cases. Considering this and wider concerns surrounding the overuse of medication, there is a need for research into alternative treatments for this condition.
Meditation has been used in other circumstances as a way of managing pain. Although systematic research in this area is still limited some studies have indicated that meditation may have the potential to be used as a complementary treatment for migraines.
What is meditation?
Meditation is the practice of focusing one’s attention on the present moment. The goal is to consider the current state of one’s mind and body and focus on the sensations that one experiences instead of thinking.
Along a wide range of non-pharmacological treatments meditation has become part of the rehabilitation of chronic pain conditions. The success of meditation in the treatment of pain conditions has spurred researchers’ interest in the field of chronic headache as an alternative approach to patient care. This approach aims to increase the awareness of the patient of their pain and help them manage their headache before resorting to formal medication.
Mindfulness meditation and reduction of pain intensity
A study conducted by Bakhshani and colleagues aimed to determine the effectiveness of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on perceived pain intensity and quality of life of patients suffering from chronic headaches. Forty patients diagnosed with migraine or chronic headache took part in the study and were randomly assigned to a control and an intervention group. The intervention included an 8-week MBSR program comprised of a daily home practice session of 90 minutes. Results from this study showed an improvement in the quality of life of patients measured with the Pain and Quality of life questionnaire. In addition to that, patients in the intervention group reported reduced perceived pain ratings. The findings from this research demonstrate the effectiveness of MBSR as a non-pharmacological intervention and strategy to cope with pain in patients suffering from chronic headaches and migraines.
How migraine affects the brain?
In the majority of cases stress, tension and anxiety trigger frequent migraines. Brain-imaging studies have shown that migraines are associated with decreased grey matter in the brain. This reduction was most prominent in areas of the brain involved in emotion, perception, memory and executive functions such as working memory and self-regulation. A recent study revealed that changes in the grey matter volume in the brain stem were correlated with migraine frequency and duration.
University of Michigan researchers have shown, using PET scans that dopamine levels decrease significantly and fluctuate during a migraine attack.
Researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a small study in which they took measurements of brain activity and dopamine levels of eight migraine sufferers during migraine attacks and compared these to samples of eight healthy participants. Results from the study suggested that during headaches dopamine levels of the migraine sufferers did not differ from that of the healthy participants.
However, during migraine attacks, the dopamine levels significantly decreased. Due to dopamine’s role in the control of sensory sensitivity, a drop in the overall dopamine levels could lead to increased sensory sensitivity. This means that normally imperceptible sensory signals coming from the skin or the muscles can cause a lot of pain. These results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that migraines are a condition associated with sensory hypersensitivity during which sounds, smells and light can be abnormally intense and thus cause discomfort and pain.
Mechanisms of action
Research has indicated that meditation may regulate dopamine levels. A study conducted by Kjaer and colleagues utilized a PET scanner and demonstrated the association between endogenous dopamine release and conscious experience. The study showed that dopamine release in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum increased during Yoga Nidra meditation. Thus, by increasing the levels of dopamine, this type of meditation provides a potentially therapeutic way of managing migraines.
Moreover, migraines are characterized by decreased grey matter volume in areas of the brain that are involved in emotion, perception, and self-regulation. Research has suggested that practicing meditation may lead to an increase in grey matter. A recent study has identified a correlation between Zen meditation practice and an increased volume of grey matter. The volume of grey matter was proportionate to the amount of time they have been practicing meditation.
Meditation techniques that encompass awareness of the contents of one’s mind represent a cognitive-behavioral way of changing the way people respond to life events and their perception of them. By having an impact of the brain in multiple ways, meditation represents a potential future alternative treatment approach for migraine sufferers, offering a potential treatment for the alleviation of pain and a possible tool to change their perception of pain.
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