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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