Breaking the Headache Cycle by Ian Livingstone, M.D. and Donna Novak, R.N.
When my migraine pattern suddenly shifted from once month or less to three to four times per week, I went to see Dr. Livingstone. When I first saw him in August of 2004, it was six months after I had two episodes of anaphylactic shock, caused by ibuprofen. I was a little gun-shy of trying new medications. I did agree to try Imitrex – I needed to be able to abort my attacks. But instead of preventive medications, Dr. Livingstone suggested that I get into a regular relaxation routine – using deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery to strengthen my nervous system’s relaxation response.
I first read the book at that time: Breaking the Headache Cycle: A Proven Program for Treating and Preventing Recurring Headaches. I took on practicing meditation daily, and after about six months I found my migraines reduced to 2 or 3 per month. The methods outlined in the book were very effective for me, in combination with the migraine abortive, to reduce my migraines to a manageable level.
The authors say migraineurs' nervous systems are “very reactive to any change, even good change. This sensitivity is the hallmark of the migraine condition. Unless it is understood and recognized, the migraine disorder cannot be adequately treated.”
If our nervous systems are over-responsive, it makes sense that relaxation and meditation will calm down the responsiveness of the nervous system. Dr. Livingstone cites studies showing that preventive medications reduce migraine about 40% on average (the book was published in 2003 - there may be more up to date statistics on this); and other studies showing that a regular relaxation practice reduces migraines 40% on average. Is it a safe bet to say if doing both, we might reduce migraine 80%? That's a number I could be very happy with!
Many times I pause and do deep breathing when I first feel pain in my head, or even just when I feel my tension mount. This often down-shifts me from a budding migraine back to a state of no head pain. I have come to be able to notice when I am getting too excited or too engaged - it's not just negative stress that can trigger me! Not surprisingly, when I got out of the habit of practicing regular relaxation, my migraines increased again. As tricky as it is to remember to take a variety of medications, in the right amounts, at the right times, I think it is even more challenging to establish and keep a routine of putting the busy concerns of life aside and take time out to look inward, breathe deep, become aware of the body, calm oneself, and relax.
I came to these methods already convinced – I was not a stranger to yoga, meditation and relaxation. I had practiced yoga in many periods in my life, starting in my teens, and meditation and guided imagery from my early twenties. Later, as a life and business coach, I have used meditation and guided imagery with my clients to help them get clear about issues that were stopping them, and to visualize what they wanted in their lives. So I wasn’t surprised that this practice would aid with migraine disease as well. The challenge is keeping it in my life as all the demands of life crowd in. The reward is getting to know my own system really well, and gaining at least a little bit of control over it.
By the way, I think preventive medication is a great thing, and many migraineurs find a lot of success with it. I may be headed down that path myself, as my migraine pattern has changed and my treatment will need to change too. But I’ll always keep relaxation as part of my routine. It makes me feel good!
Nothing to gain from pain!
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