If you’re one of the 45 million people living with migraines or other types of headaches, including tension headaches, you know just how painful this condition is and how it robs you of your quality of life over time. If medication and cutting back on common triggers like caffeine hasn’t done the trick, it might be time to try guided imagery for migraines.
Research surrounding guided imagery and migraines and other types of headaches has been going on for well over a decade. Most studies indicate that guided imagery, guided meditation and hypnosis can be an effective treatment for migraines, tension headaches and more. Here’s a look at some of the latest studies and their findings.
Headaches do Respond to Guided Imagery For Migraines
In 2011, Iranian researchers from Isfahan University, Shafa Hospital and Arak University examined how effective guided imagery and prolonged meditation on a happy memory are at reducing the duration, frequency and intensity of chronic tension headaches.
During the study, 60 people received headache therapy and were randomly assigned to one of 3 groups: the first group listened to guided imagery audio 3 times a week for 3 weeks, the second group meditated on their happiest memory 3 times a week for 3 weeks and the third group received their usual personalized headache therapy.
All participants kept their own headache journal and completed a questionnaire. At the end of the study, both the group using a guided imagery program and the group meditating on a happy memory showed significantly more improvement than the control group.
The researchers determined that guided imagery for migraines is an effective and affordable alternative to medication therapy to manage chronic tension headaches.
An earlier study in 1999 by Dr. Lisa Mannix of the North Carolina Adelman Headache Center also found similar results. In this study, Dr. Mannix added guided imagery tapes to the typical treatment course for half of the headache patients in the study. The group using guided imagery listened to their tape once a day for 30 days. At the end of the study, Dr. Mannix determined that the guided imagery patients showed significantly higher improvement in their headaches: 21.7% using guided imagery reported improvement compared to only 7.6% in the control group.
Reducing Stress to Control Headaches
There are three main types of headaches: migraines, secondary headaches and tension headaches. Migraines can be the most debilitating and last up to 72 hours in some cases and most come with sensitivity to sound and noise and even nausea. This type of headache usually isn’t directly caused by stress although stress can increase the duration or intensity. Secondary headaches may be the result of another illness and stress may also play a role.
Tension headaches — also known as stress headaches — typically respond the best to guided imagery and meditation as it’s believed that they’re the direct result of stress. It’s often recommended to headache sufferers to simply “reduce stress.” There are many ways to reduce stress in your life, from reading a book quietly before bed, yoga and daily guided imagery or meditation. Many people who suffer from chronic tension headaches are also placed on prescription medications. Here’s what one team of researchers determined about the efficiency of each type of treatment.
A team of psychologists at Ohio University used a study in 2001 to study the effectiveness of various behavioral and pharmacological therapies, both alone and combined, to treat these chronic tension headaches. They performed a placebo-controlled, randomized study and assigned adults to either an antidepressant like Elavil, stress management therapy or both. There was also a placebo group.
The study found that, while all forms of treatment are more effective than the placebos, the combination of behavioral therapy and medication seemed to yield the best results than either therapy on its own.
While it seems that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and traditional medicine live in separate worlds, the trend over the last few years is actually to combine these two forms of therapy for many conditions to achieve a greater chance of success. This study underlines this changing trend. In fact, a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 3% of people who seek yoga, meditation and other stress reduction techniques are doing so after a recommendation from their medical doctor.
Other Research into Guided Imagery for Headaches
Lifestyle changes are often seen as the best way to avoid headache triggers, which includes a change in diet and exercise to lower stress and prevent muscle contractions. A number of studies have shown that the deep relaxation from guided imagery is both a cost-effective and efficient way to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of aches and increase the patient’s ability to cope.
The authors of a 2003 review of Mannix’s study above concluded that there is “considerable evidence” of the effectiveness of techniques like guided imagery and hypnosis to treat headaches while a 2002 review from researchers at the University of Mississippi found that learning to reduce stress can be just as effective in reducing headaches as taking prescription medication.
Hypnosis for Headaches in Children
While stress management often deals with helping adults reduce stress, it’s important to remember that children face a lot of stress in their life, too, especially when they’re dealing with significant changes in their environment. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis looked at how hypnosis can reduce pain and headaches in children.
The study found that 37% of kids reported fixed stressors, or events over which they had no control, while 67% reported variable stressors in which the children could change their behavior to change the outcome. A full 96% of the children in the study reported moderate to significant improvement in their headaches after using hypnosis with headaches that were either less frequent or less severe. The hypnosis was most helpful for kids dealing with variable stressors.
A second study entitled “Self-hypnosis training for headaches in children and adolescents” published in 2007 in the Journal of Pediatrics also found that self-hypnosis in children and young people can dramatically reduce the frequency and duration of headaches from an average of 4.5 each week to 1.4 per week.
Ready to Try Guided Imagery?
Guided imagery has been found by numerous studies to be a truly effective way to reduce headaches and headache-related visits to the doctor, especially with combined with another treatment. If you’ve been suffering with chronic headaches for too long and you’re ready to try guided imagery, try this program designed to Release Pain. This gentle guided meditation helps you release or reduce your headaches by finding out what your pain is trying to tell you. Use golden light to make your pain smaller and send it on its way!