A small randomized controlled trial of patients in the US suggests migraine sufferers might find relief in a type of meditation designed to reduce stress.

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Though larger studies need to be conducted, this latest study suggests MBSR meditation could help migraine sufferers.

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, NC, and Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, report their findings in the journal Headache.

Lead author Rebecca Erwin Wells, assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist, explains why they carried out the pilot study:

“Stress is a well-known trigger for headaches and research supports the general benefits of mind/body interventions for migraines, but there hasn’t been much research to evaluate specific standardized meditation interventions.”

The main purpose of the study, which involved 19 adult participants, was to evaluate the safety, feasibility and effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for migraine sufferers.

Migraines are recurring moderate to severe headaches felt as a throbbing or pulsing, often on one side of the head. During migraines, people are very sensitive to light and sound and may also become nauseated and vomit.

According to the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, migraine is three times more common in women than in men and affects more than 10% of people worldwide.

There is evidence that MBSR can help alleviate chronic pain but not much evidence on its effect on migraines.

MBSR is a standardized 8-week program that teaches people to become more mindful through learning mindfulness meditation, body awareness and yoga. It was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, as a way to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness.

For their study, Prof. Wells and colleagues randomized the 19 adult participants to one of two groups. One group received standard medical care, and the other group took part in an 8-week MBSR program during which they attended one instruction class a week and practiced MBSR at home for 45 minutes on at least another 5 days a week.

Before and after the trial period, the participants completed evaluations of disability, self-efficacy and mindfulness. During the trial, they logged their headaches, noting their frequency, severity and duration.

The researchers found that the patients who completed the MBSR program tended to have 1.4 fewer headaches per month that were less severe.

However, because of the small size of the pilot, this was not statistically significant, meaning the number is not big enough to be sure it was the program and not just chance that created the reduction.

“Secondary effects included headaches that were shorter in duration and less disabling, and participants had increases in mindfulness and self-efficacy — a sense of personal control over their migraines,” Prof. Wells explains. “In addition, there were no adverse events and excellent adherence.”

The team concludes that their pilot study shows MBSR is a safe and feasible therapy for adults with migraines.

They now call for larger studies with more participants to evaluate the effect of MBSR on migraine headaches.

Prof. Wells says:

For the approximate 36 million Americans who suffer from migraines, there is a big need for non-pharmaceutical treatment strategies, and doctors and patients should know that MBSR is a safe intervention that could potentially decrease the impact of migraines.”

Funds from the American Headache Society Fellowship and the Headache Research Fund of the John Graham Headache Center, Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital helped finance the study.

In March 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration announced its first approval of a device for preventing migraine headaches. The device, a headband that delivers a nerve-stimulating low electrical current through the skin, may bring relief to patients who cannot tolerate current migraine drugs.