Open Practice: How Vipassana Meditation Relieves My Migraine Headaches

Why Migraines Suck

Migraines are chronic headaches that can cause significant pain for hours or even days.  Symptoms can be so severe that all you can think about is finding a dark, quiet place to lie down.

Some migraines are preceded or accompanied by sensory warning symptoms or signs (auras), such  as flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your arm or leg. A migraine is often  accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

Mayo Clinic: Migraine: Definition

I’ve been a migraine sufferer for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of a migraine episode was when I was in elementary school. I would cut classes and go home because the headache would render me useless for the rest of the day. During extreme attacks I would go the bathroom, hug the toilet, and throw up. Then I would go to my room, ask my mother to massage my head, and then curl up in bed covering my head with a pillow or blanket. Pain relievers helped a bit. But only hours of sleep could totally cure the pain, until the next episode. My life has always been that way.

Migraine attacks have been a part of my life. I’ve already grown accustomed to it. Sometimes I would get headaches multiple times a week but sometimes it would take weeks before another episode. There is no known cure for migraine headaches. The best “cure” is to know the triggers (it varies for different people) and avoid them as best as you can.

In my case, there  are a number of things which could trigger an attack: something I ate, alcohol, extreme sunlight, driving for too long, watching movies for too long, reading while inside a moving vehicle, stress, and thinking too much. Those are just some of the most common triggers I’ve observed in myself. Nevertheless, I still consider myself lucky. There is a spectrum of migraine sufferers, and based on the literature I’ve read, my case can be classified as moderate. There are some people who suffer from migraine headaches for days and even weeks. Mine goes away after a few hours of good sleep. However, whenever it happens, the pain still sucks. During extreme cases I’m unable to continue with my tasks and could no longer carry a normal conversation with people. All I want to do is pop up a painkiller pill, curl up in bed, hug a pillow, and doze off. That is, until I practiced vipassana meditation.

The Serendipity of Vipassana (Mindfulness) Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has gained popularity and acceptance in the medical field thanks to the efforts of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn. It has been effectively used by a number of people to relieve stress and deal with chronic pains. So it’s not really surprising for me to discover that I could also relieve my migraine headaches with meditation.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness (or vipassana) meditation, as taught by Shinzen Young, consistently for about seven months now. I meditate daily for 1.25 hours in the morning and another 1.25 hours in the evening, for a total of 2.5 hours a day. It was never my intention to use meditation to relieve my migraine headaches. However, for the past few months I noticed that my migraine attacks had been very minimal, and whenever they occur I would just continue with my meditation as usual.  Here is what I discovered:

Meditation relieves my migraine headaches without me popping a pill or curling up like a baby in bed. In other words, meditation seems to have the same effects on my migraine as if I had a few hours of sleep.

I’m not making this claim very lightly. In fact, I’ve made use of six migraine episodes to put this discovery to empirical tests. For the past few weeks, every time I feel a migraine attack coming, I refrained from taking pain relievers. I would just carry on with my meditation practice no matter how much pain I was feeling at that time. The result: I was able to relieve my migraine headaches just by meditating, six out of six times! So far I have a batting of 100%! Not too shabby, eh? :)

That said, it’s too early to proclaim meditation as a wonder cure for all migraine headaches. The good news, however, is that there is a clinical trial in progress to scientifically study the effects of intensive meditation on chronic headaches. See Intensive Meditation and Migraines: Effects on Health and Well Being. I’m looking forward to the publication of the scientific study.

In the meantime, I’m just glad that I have another way of dealing with my migraine headaches with less suffering. This is especially useful in the wake of the bad side effects of acetaminophen and other painkillers.

Let’s Cut to the Chase. How Do I Do It?

For those who are interested to know how I deal with migraine headaches using vipassana meditation, here’s how I do it.

Step 1: Take a comfortable sitting position with spine straight (I do mine in half lotus posture. But sitting in a comfortable chair will do). Take a couple of deep breaths to start the relaxation. As best as you can, let the pain do its thing in the background. Don’t resist or dwell on it.

Step 2: Observe the breath by noting the rising and falling of the abdomen on each inhalation and exhalation. If attention wanders, just  gently turn your attention back to observing the breath.

Step 3: Once the body is relaxed and attention is calm, embrace and penetrate the pain! Observe how the pain in the head shifts, morphs, expands, contracts, spreads, and pulsates. Note and mentally label them as “flow.” Then watch the pain like watching a jellyfish in the aquarium. (That’s the best analogy I could think of at the moment. But I think it’s accurate.)

Step 4: Sooner or later, awareness shifts, instead of observing the pain, you begin to feel its wave-like sensations. When you notice the wavy sensations, just ride it! A few moments later, you’ll notice that the pain just vanishes. It is replaced by a relaxed and open attention. Continue with the meditation session as usual.

Well, at least that’s how it works for me :) Give it a try.

For a more detailed example, see how Shinzen instructs a student on how to deal with physical discomfort. The focus on change is basically the same algorithmic process I follow.

See also: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

At this point, my experience maybe “anecdotal.” But as a migraine sufferer all my life, vipassana meditation is a welcome addition to my medicine box of relief. As my teacher Shinzen Young would say: Meditation can be used to transcend conditions, but it can also be used to improve conditions. I’m all for that.

ADDENDUM (07/20/2009): Once again I have empirical proof that vipassana meditation works not only to relieve my migraine headaches but also to stop it in its tracks before it even starts.

Case in point: I just came back from a trip to Victoria, BC Canada. It was a 2.5 hour ride by boat, each way. For motion-sensitive people like me, the constant rocking of the boat is more than enough to trigger a full-blown migraine headache attack. In fact, even before the boat left the pier, I already felt a tingling of a migraine attack coming in. However, instead of popping a pill, I just did my usual vipassana meditation practice during the trip. I closed my eyes, sat with my back straight and focused my attention on my breathing. Then whenever the boat was hit by big waves I would switch to focus on “flow” technique (e.g. by shifting my focus on the swaying of the boat). In short, instead of resisting the shaking, I would “ride” with the shaking and make it as the object of meditation.

The result: No migraine headaches during the entire trip! I enjoyed the trip, the company, and I got to appreciate the beauty of Victoria, BC.

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Comments (32)

  1. hazel colditz wrote::

    had been wondering what the #openpractice was about! still learning how to work this blog thingy…not sure how to “link” maybe email me?
    i too suffer from migraines, since jr high! AND i concur, meditation is the best remedy i have found!
    thanks for posting…sharing!

    Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 10:30 am #
  2. okir wrote::

    c4chaos:

    I’m glad to find someone who has had a somewhat similar experience to mine with migraines. I would also class myself as a “moderate” migraine sufferer, although nowadays I rarely get them anymore. Shinzen Young’s method gave me the first inkling that it was possible to deal stop the suffering without painkillers. The first time I tried it, I sat in front of my computer listening to the audio instructions, and then reading them and practicing it myself. To my surprise my migraine disappeared the first time I tried it! It hasn’t always worked — it seems to depend on the quality of my concentration. But the last time I tried it on a migraine, the pain broke up into cooling “streams” of sensation, followed by the cessation of the pain. Wonderful!

    Okir

    Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm #
  3. c4chaos wrote::

    hazel, okir,

    good to know that there are others out there who have found relief from migraines using meditation.

    this inspires me to carry on with practice :)

    ~C

    Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 7:46 pm #
  4. Holly Friesen wrote::

    Just read your post on migraines & meditation, thank-you for sharing this. I have suffered severe migraine attacks (72 hour episodes) for over 30 years, completely debilitating but have had some relief recently from a change of lifestyle. Meditation definitely helps though I am resistant to it for reasons I have yet to discover :) Have you read Oliver Sacks book on Migraine, some interesting ideas in there as well.

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 11:28 am #
  5. martinxo wrote::

    Great post, inspiring for all of us. Thanks for sharing.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm #
  6. Mumon wrote::

    C4: I’m glad you’re encouraged in your practice.

    Please don’t let my criticisms of Wilberites and Genposians dissuade you.

    It gets deeper than that.

    Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 4:49 pm #
  7. c4chaos wrote::

    Mumon,

    thanks! don’t worry my practice is not dependent on either Wilber or Genpo Roshi. and i’m also critical of them, but in my own way ;)

    ~C

    Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 10:49 am #
  8. I am so happy to find this post! It amazes me how little attention is given to the power of meditation. I suffered for three years with migraines (getting anywhere from 6-10) per month. I finally started learning about different meditations practices. I began using progressive muscle relaxation techniques, Autogenic Training, Deep Breathing techniques, etc…and I am happy to say that tehy have made a HUGE difference in my migraine frequency and intensity.

    I can’t believe more people aren’t writing about this, although I do see a lot of skepticism regarding natural techniques for migraine relief. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You write beautifully and your story needs to be heard.

    I create deep relaxation meditations and I have one on my site for learning how to practice diaphragmatic breathing if you would like to check it out. Deep breathing practices have been a big part of my meditation practice and I believe they can greatly benefit people who suffer from migraines. You can find the audio meditation here, (just scroll down to the end of the article on the page after you click this link)
    natural migraine relief meditation

    Thanks again for sharing your experience!
    Diana

    Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 4:35 pm #
  9. WOW!

    Okay, so I just wanted to give you a report on my own personal experience with the four videos you added to your post. I just walked through the steps of this practice along with the video. Conveniently enough, I’ve had a lot of shoulder, neck and head tension today so I had plenty to work with!

    By the end of video one I already felt the “flow” he speaks about, but it started to get crazy-cool because the flow start in my head, and all the pain and tenison I had there spread out into this “flow” (if that makes sense) and then the wave flow took over my whole upper body from my midback to the top of my head. I can’t tell for sure but i had the thought that my body was actualy physically moving during this as if literally behaving like a real ocean wave…it was awesome, and quite dramatic. Anyway, I kep riding the wave and the pain and tension was gone–there was just the wave, (and I hadn’t even gotten to his second video yet! I did go through all the videos to the end.

    Do you notice that your body actually moves in a wave like motion or is it actually an illusion? Next time I should do this with a witness in the room or by a mirror. Really cool stuff! Again, thaqnk you for posting this piece!

    Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 5:46 pm #
  10. c4chaos wrote::

    Diana,

    i agree, more people should write about this stuff! good thing you’re already doing your share ;)

    thanks for sharing your techniques on how to relieve migraine headaches. interesting stuff. hopefully, more people would discover it and give it a try.

    good to know you’ve given Shinzen Young’s technique a try. cool stuff, eh?

    you ask: “Do you notice that your body actually moves in a wave like motion or is it actually an illusion?”

    i don’t think it’s an illusion. i think it’s a shift in perception. in my case, i don’t always get to the wave flow of things, but when i do, it does feel like my body is being massaged. sometimes i feel like my body is like a seaweed being blown by underwater current. and when i get to the finer wave vibrations it feels like an electric current is running through my whole body. very pleasant sensations.

    based on your description, that’s exactly how it feels like when i get deep enough into concentration. so it looks like you have a natural talent for it :)

    btw, when you get to the wave sensation of things, that’s the tangible aspect of what Buddhists call “impermanence”.

    thanks again for sharing your experience. take care and godspeed.

    ~C

    Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 10:34 pm #
  11. C4Chaos,

    I need to get a video camera and film myself while doing this…I kid you not, I’m pretty sure my body is actually “literally” moving. Okay, so there was one point while doing it, (now this will probably sound weird, but obviously you are very open) where I actually felt like my body was “waving about” like I was riding a horse. It was a pretty big wave! My body was really sensetive to this work. I’ve also been a bodywork junkie, (received lots of different kinds of bodywork) for years, so maybe that’s a piece of it…I don’t know.

    I cannot thank you enough though for you wonderful posts. I am so grateful for having stumbled upon your blog. You truly are a beautiful writer and your content kicks ass!

    With all your links in this post I found myself at Shinzen’s websites and I am looking forward to participating in his upcoming conference call mediation retreats. How exciting! I hope you continue to write more about your experience with this work–please write more! Especially in relation to your migraines or any other physical illness or discomfort.

    You ROCK!
    Diana

    Friday, August 7, 2009 at 10:56 am #
  12. c4chaos wrote::

    Diana,

    let me know how it goes if and when you video yourself while doing the practice. my bet would be that you will see yourself perfectly still.

    like i said, i think the big wavy sensations is a shift in perception of the “impermanent” nature of the body. but who knows, maybe on a case by case basis the body would move/sway with the flow. however, i doubt that it would move as fluid or as big as the vibratory waves we perceive on a subjective level. in my experience, my body sometimes feel like a one dimensional paper being folded and/or crumpled. my body can’t *physically* move like that :)

    i’m glad that you found my post helpful. good luck with your practice. i wish you all the best.

    see you around.

    ~C

    Friday, August 7, 2009 at 2:43 pm #
  13. C4chaos,

    What do you mean by “the vibratory waves we perceive on a subjective level”?

    and have you studied with Shinzen in person? or have you taken his telephone retreats?

    Friday, August 7, 2009 at 5:03 pm #
  14. c4chaos wrote::

    Diana,

    “What do you mean by “the vibratory waves we perceive on a subjective level”?”

    i mean that each person would perceive the vibratory phenomena differently (hence, very subjective). also, not everyone perceives the vibrations. i don’t get this all the time, only occasionally if i get deep enough in my concentration and relaxation (or equanimity).

    i haven’t studied personally with Shinzen, but i consider him my teacher since i practice what he teaches, and i consult with him via email :)

    i still haven’t tried the home retreats but i’m planning to attend it this coming weekend. there’s a retreat schedule every month so i’m thinking of jacking into it every couple of months or so.

    ~C

    Sunday, August 9, 2009 at 4:50 pm #
  15. Karthik wrote::

    Hey c4,

    Great post. I did a 10 day vipassana retreat near Seattle and I realized that observing and characterizing pain objectively like you did, reduces it’s effect on you and can even dissolve it. It’s wonderful that you have found a natural and effective route to migraine cure. Meditation rocks!

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:13 pm #
  16. Kelly wrote::

    Hi all,
    I’m participating in Dr. Goyal’s NIH trial. I’m headed out to the 10-day Vipassana retreat tomorrow. Please keep me in your thoughts. I’ve had a constant intractable migraine since 3/20/2006. I’m only 26, I really want my life back!!! I’ll make sure to let you know how the retreat goes.
    Thanks!
    Kelly
    P.S. Here’s the link to Dr. Goyal’s site: http://hopkinsmeditation.googlepages.com/

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 5:26 pm #
  17. c4chaos wrote::

    Kelly,

    it’s great to hear from someone who’s participating in the NIH trail!
    will certainly keep you in my thoughts :) good luck with the trial. i would love to hear your experience after.

    take care and i wish you get relief from your migraine.

    ~C

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 6:15 pm #
  18. ambuj.mondal@gmail.c wrote::

    hi !
    nice to find that there are other solutions rather than pills. I am a 3rd year engineering student and facing problems frequently since 2 one year. kindly guide me to meditation . i dont get the points clesrly. please mail me to ambuj.mondal@gmail.com
    thanks.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 11:25 am #
  19. Laurie wrote::

    I too have been a severe migraine sufferer for a long time and have recently had to resign from my job due to the frequency and intensity of my migraines. I am just beginning my journey of exploring meditation instead of pain medication and am hopeful for the first time in 10 years.What do you think of standing/walking meditation?

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm #
  20. Laurie wrote::

    Has anyone out there read “Hungry Ghost”? It really speaks to mindfullness and its possibilities.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm #
  21. c4chaos wrote::

    Laurie,

    i haven’t tried walking/standing meditation for my migraine. but if it works for you, let me know. go for it.

    i’m more of a sitting meditation type. then again, the goal of meditation is to bring the meditative state in our daily activities. so if you can do it while walking/standing then that would be better than sitting :)

    good luck!

    ~C

    P.S. haven’t read “Hungry Ghost”. will check it out.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 9:32 pm #
  22. Sal wrote::

    Hi C4chaos,
    I’ve just googled “migraine” and “mindfulness” and your story popped up. Can you let me know whether vipassana is still helping, one year on?

    Cos I’ve been meditating for 7 years … I think it helps my migraines a bit, but I keep having this feeling that it could help a lot more, and that I need to get deeper into mindfulness. Your experiences, and others mentioned here, are making me hopeful!

    Cheers,
    Sal

    Monday, September 27, 2010 at 4:21 am #
  23. Manuel m wrote::

    Hi i am trying this to see if it will work..
    Umm does this work for the stomach pain and vomiting?
    Cuz im 16 years old and i get 2 migranes a month…
    My mom took me to the hospital to get a brain scan but there was nothing…
    Im trying to try new things and i only had that question.
    Do u suggest that i do this everyday?
    Is there anything else i should know?
    Please email me… Im done suffering
    Its taking over my life ever since i was 12…
    Email: mmmanny55@gmail.com

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm #
  24. c4chaos wrote::

    @Manuel, sorry to hear about your condition. i’m not qualified to give any health advice since i’m not a health professional. all i can suggest is for you to do more research on mindfulness meditation.
    see: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7654964

    meditation is an alternative method for dealing with pain. but you should work with your physician to see if this will apply to your condition.

    that said, below is a link to some videos on how mindfulness meditation (as taught by Shinzen Young) can be used to deal with pain.
    http://www.youtube.com/expandcontract#g/c/3541FC41053BE50E

    i do hope that you get better and find relief soon.

    take care.

    ~C

    Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm #
  25. mel mccarthy wrote::

    Thank You ever so much for sharing this. I’ve had success with meditation as migraine relief before, but tend to forget about it. The way you describe the pain as a jelly fish is fascinating & lovely (and feels accurate too) Thanks for the reminder. P.S. I notice we’re neighbours. We have beautiful places to meditate here, eh? :)

    Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 11:21 am #
  26. Steve wrote::

    What if your migraine start in your sleep. I wake up with a migraine and typically no medication works, even the expensive kind.

    Steve

    Friday, November 4, 2011 at 10:08 am #
  27. vandana wrote::

    after reading first few lines i thought as if you wrote about me…hmmm m surely gonna try it because m tired of medicines and sometimes feel really frustrated, m losing everything because of this, my memory with time has become weak, can’t stress myself much n sometimes feel really lost at work place and m going freakin crazy, isolated myself from outside world and wants to be alone all my life

    Friday, January 6, 2012 at 6:25 am #
  28. Erin wrote::

    I was wondering if this would work for any kind of pain? I recently discovered meditation and, being brought up this way, am all for those natural things.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm #
  29. Byron wrote::

    Basic Mindfulness has worked well for me, I had previously been diagnosed as having:

    Ice Pick Headaches
    Cluster Headaches (suicide headaches)
    Atypical Trigeminal Neuralgia (suicide disease)

    I began with my own forms of meditation which helped somewhat and then discovered Shinzen’s work which completed the picture for me. I still have pain but the suffering is minimal. The most important aspect is that my behaviors are not governed by the condition. I have begun training as a facilitator so that I may help others mitigate what can be excruciating pain.

    mindfulnessbyron@gmail.com

    Friday, October 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm #
  30. Carole Brandon wrote::

    Thank you for the reminder.

    I have a regular meditation practice and for the past couple of months I have been having severe headaches.

    After reading your post, I began meditating rather sleeping (the pain was so severe , I felt that I just had to sleep). I meditated for about 40 minutes and fell into a deep restful sleep. I awoke without severe pain, a light tingling and now I am going to return to my cushion.

    With gratitude,

    Carole

    Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 9:03 am #
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Trackbacks/Pingbacks (6)

  1. [...] has a detailed account of how meditation has helped with migraines. He outlines a four-step process. Normally in these zeitgeist articles we don’t post much [...]

  2. migraine and meditation « Working Dharma on Friday, November 6, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    [...] ~c4chaos has had similar results with Shinzen Young’s instructions for meditating with pain. [...]

  3. Shinzen Young On Lucid Dreaming and The Five Ways < ~C4Chaos on Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    [...] I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it. It had dramatically improved my sitting meditation, relieved my migraine headaches, made me consistent with my open practice, and most importantly, it gave me a general sense of [...]

  4. [...] For more information on how this can work–and specific techniques–I would strongly recommend Shinzen Young’s Break Through Pain, which I mentioned and quoted from in the first post. C4Chaos also offers an excellent example in Open Practice: How Vipassana Meditation Relieves My Migraine Headaches. [...]

  5. [...] Open Practice: How Vipassana Meditation Relieves My Migraine Headaches [...]

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    [...] So last night I took a hot bath.  I picked some lavender and sage from the garden and added it to the water with some sea salt.  I put on some classical music, cracked open a Guinness and a bar of dark chocolate, and did some Vipassana meditation. [...]