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May 11, 2020

The Downward Dog Path to Migraine Relief

Yoga can reduce not just the pain, but also the frequency and treatment cost of migraines.

Migraines are severe, often throbbing headaches. They may be accompanied by painful sensitivity to light and sound, and nausea. They can last for hours or even days. Medications may help some people, but are not effective for everyone. Now there's a new treatment option for migraine sufferers — yoga. A study finds yoga practice can make migraine headaches less painful, less frequent and of shorter duration.

“The good news is that practicing something as simple and accessible as yoga may help much more than medications alone. And all you need is a mat.”

Migraine is one of the most common headache disorders, but only about half the people taking medication for it get real relief,” according to study author, Rohit Bhatia, a member of the American Academy of Neurology and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India, “The good news is that practicing something as simple and accessible as yoga may help much more than medications alone. And all you need is a mat.”

Over 100 people between the ages of 18 and 50 who experienced between four to 14 headaches per month participated in the study. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups, either medication-only or yoga plus medication.

People in the yoga group were supervised by a yoga instructor three days a week for one month. They learned a one-hour routine that included breathing and relaxation exercises and postures and went on to practice on their own at home for five days a week over the next two months.

Both groups received appropriate medications, as well as counseling about lifestyle changes that can help with migraine — such as getting adequate sleep, eating regular meals and exercising.

Both groups saw improvements in the intensity and frequency of their migraine symptoms, but the yoga group improved more. Both groups also found their migraines interfered with their lives less and were able to reduce their need for medication.

The yoga group saw benefits that were roughly four times greater than those who only took medication. Those practicing yoga started with a reported average of 9.1 headaches per month, and ended the study reporting just 4.7 headaches per month, a 48 percent reduction, while the medication-only group had an average of 7.7 headaches per month at the start of the study and 6.8 at the end of the three months, a 12 percent decrease.

Similarly, the average number of pills people in the yoga group used decreased by 47 percent after three months. The average number of pills taken by the medication-only group decreased by about 12 percent.

“Our results show that yoga can reduce not just the pain, but also the treatment cost of migraines,” said Bhatia. “That can be a real game changer, especially for people who struggle to afford their medication. Medications are usually prescribed first, and some can be expensive.” Since the participants reported information about their headaches themselves, the results may not be consistent, the authors say, but there is little reason why those experiencing recurring migraines should not try yoga to see if they might find some relief.

The study is published in Neurology.
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