Regular Yoga Routine Could Help with Migraines, Evidence Shows

frequency, intensity of migraines lower in those who practice yoga

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Migraine sufferers who add yoga to their day may find added relief, CNN reported. The frequency and overall pain levels for sufferers of migraines who practice yoga seem to be less than for those who don’t try yoga. This isn’t the first link between yoga and pain relief.

Woman doing yoga in her living room
Yoga’s emphasis on slow, deep breathing; relaxation; and healthy stretching of the body provides relief for pain management and stress. Photo by shurkin_son / Shutterstock

It appears prescriptions don’t have a corner on the pain relief market for people who suffer from migraines. “For those on a medication plan, adding a yoga practice to their treatment repertoire may help to reduce the intensity and frequency of those troublesome migraines, and how many pills they need to take to ease the pain,” the CNN article said. “The most common trigger for migraines is stress. Because yoga is a gentle exercise that influences both body and mind, it’s been found to be effective in managing symptoms of this often debilitating condition.”

The article goes on to state that migraine sufferers who kept diaries rating their pain reported lower marks if they practiced yoga, and it isn’t the only time that yoga and pain relief seem to be linked.

Stress, Pain, and Yoga

Two of the most frustrating sensations in daily life—pain and stress—are closely related, and yoga can help deal with both.

“Because both the stress and the pain systems in your body are about survival, it’s actually difficult to separate them in your mind, and your nervous system is not so good at it either,” said Dr. Heidi E. Sormaz, Founder, Owner, and Director of Fresh Yoga, LLC. “Pain equals stress—you hurt your back, your stress levels go up. Later on, the reverse can be true: the stress level goes up, your back hurts.”

It’s been proven that practicing yoga reduces stress levels, due to its emphasis on relaxation and healthy stretching of the body. This already makes it a good candidate for pain management and the treatment of pain.

“Scientific studies have been conducted with people experiencing pain from a wide variety of conditions—low back pain, migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and many more,” Dr. Sormaz said. “These studies have looked at several types of yoga that had similar components, like breathing, stretching, strength building, and relaxation. But the studies also had many differences, including the type of yoga practiced, the intensity of practice, the amount of time spent in the practice, and the frequency of the yoga sessions.”

The variables of the studies proved that yoga wasn’t a chance occurrence of pain relief for sufferers, but a commonality.

Why Yoga Helps

Dr. Sormaz said that science hasn’t yet discovered exactly how or why yoga helps with pain and stress, despite the conclusiveness of the evidence. However, there are three tools in yoga that may explain pain mitigation.

“The first pain reduction tool that you can learn in yoga is to change your breath and your attention patterns,” she said. “These changes reduce stress and give the signal to our body that we’re safe and well, instead of in a state of emergency. The typical breath response to pain is to hold your breath or breathe rapidly; most hatha yoga poses ask you to do exactly the opposite, to deliberately lengthen and slow down your breath.”

The second pain reduction tool that yoga can teach us is to release “chronic contraction,” or our bodies’ tendencies to tighten up. Dr. Sormaz said most of the tension in our bodies is both unconscious and unintentional, so if we try to tense our muscles on purpose, we can then release them into relaxation. She said that these tense areas of our body are the same ones that usually lead to chronic pain.

“The third pain-reduction tool that you can learn in yoga is how to create the potential for healthier movement patterns in the body,” Dr. Sormaz said. “Much of how we move is a habit—we don’t need to pay attention to it; we can certainly walk and do something else at the same time. But if you continually walk with your feet turned out or your hips thrust forward, this is going to eventually lead to pain.”

Dr. Sormaz said that pain is often a result of bad movement patterns in the body, and yoga can teach us to “engage the muscles that aren’t working properly and relax the ones that don’t let go when they should.” This will help align our bones, relieve our joints and soft tissue, and alleviate pain.

Whether we suffer from migraines, back aches, or other kinds of pain, a regular yoga routine seems to be beneficial. For now, the evidence is in, even if the exact reasons aren’t.

Dr. Heidi E. Sormaz contributed to this article. Dr. Sormaz is the founder, owner, and director of Fresh Yoga LLC in New Haven, Connecticut. She earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale and the University of California, Berkeley.