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Migraineur’s Guide to CAM: exercise and meditation


We often think of exercise as something to do to improve fitness. While these exercise methods can improve physical fitness, their purpose is to reduce stress, improve mental functioning, and create a state of calm awareness and mental clarity. This state of mind is sometimes referred to as “enlightenment”. Numerous studies support the practice of one or more of these methods as an excellent way to manage stress, lower blood pressure, improve pain tolerance, reduce anxiety, and facilitate general wellness.

The exercises listed here are gentle and low-impact – perfect for migraineurs who are easily triggered by more intense workouts. They improve balance, coordination, and flexibility. Your own body is used as resistance, making these practices affordable as no extra equipment is required.

Yoga has its origins in Ayurvedic practices. Regular yoga practice improves circulation, respiration, strength, and flexibility. It has also been shown to improve relaxation and is an excellent stress management tool.

Tai Chi is a mind-body practice involving slow, dance-like movements, breathing techniques, and mindfulness meditation. Regular practice improves balance and circulation.  It is a low-impact form of exercise that uses your own body weight as resistance.

Qi Gong is similar to Tai Chi in that it is also a movement discipline. The key difference is that advanced forms involve improving the flow of chi (“life force”). Qi Gong emphasizes specific breathing techniques and precise, flowing movements. Both disciplines have shown to improve overall wellness, reduce blood pressure, and are gentle, simple ways to improve fitness in even the most disabled individuals.


These meditative practices all help to calm the mind and increase awareness. As with the exercises listed above, meditation serves to facilitate relaxation, lower the impact of stress, reduce anxiety, increase pain tolerance, and create a sense of peace and tranquility. These practices are especially useful for staying calm during a migraine attack.

Kundalini Yoga is a combination of body positions, breathing techniques, and meditations. There is a large variety of combinations, so this type of meditation practice is best done with a teacher to guide you. There are specific meditations for any number of concerns (stress relief, concentration, etc.).

Zen Meditation is also called “zazen” which means “seated meditation”. It is a type of meditation originated with Buddhist practices. It involves the vocalization of mantras, observing breath and mind, and chanting. The teacher guides the group using Sutras (teachings) from Buddhist writings.

Transcendental Meditation™ is the only trademarked form of meditation. It was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Like Zen Meditation, it involves mantras and breathing. It has the reputation of being “effortless”.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is often taught in medical centers by doctors, nurses, or other healthcare practitioners. It involves teaching breath awareness and body scanning. Body scanning is simply tuning your awareness to body sensations, particularly muscle tension, and then systematically relaxing the entire body, starting at the toes and working up slowly.  This form of meditation can be performed sitting, standing, lying down, or walking.

Guided Meditation is often used in combination with MBSR or hypnosis. It is often used by therapists to teach relaxation to client with anxiety. It has also been used in work with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder). Many commercial meditation CDs or videos are based on this type of meditation, too.

The beauty of these practices is their simplicity. Anyone can learn, even very small children. No special equipment or skills are required.  It doesn’t really matter which you choose. All have a proven track record for reducing stress, relieving pain, and building strength & flexibility.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.



  • Sandy
    5 years ago

    Thank you robertcan. Have taught relaxation, guided imagery, mindfulness. They seem to help me wth daily stressors but not w panic frm ptsd when something is triggered. I can however stop panic attacks with abdominal breathing. But I am like u when I am in constant pain 6 or higher for 12 straight hrs, know amt of any relaxation seems to help. I can pray/meditate for the first 3 hrs. After that, my body is on autopilot. Cant think.worn out Still in severe pain. Nothing has changed. Maybe I too am not a good practitioner.

  • RobertCan
    5 years ago

    Sandy, I think we all have a threshold where the pain takes over. And its not just the pain, its also the fatigue that comes with fighting the pain. There’s just nothing left in the tank to practice exercise and meditation. I don’t doubt the benefit for some. Sadly, mine are too frequent and too severe to practice any of the above exercises.

  • RobertCan
    5 years ago

    Interesting article. While I understand the importance of stress management for migraineurs, I sometimes feel that the uninformed use stress as a hammer against us. “If only you could learn to handle your stress better” is but one comment I’ve heard. If only my chronic migraines where that simple to treat.

    There can be great value in learning to control our responses to life using any of the exercises Tammy highlights above. And I concur that their beauty lies in their simplicity. At best for me, I can sometimes lessen the pain through meditation but in most cases, the pain far exceeds my ability to manage it objectively and with patience. Perhaps I’m just a weak practitioner? I’m unsure. Hoping to hear from others who have used these exercises with success.

  • RobertCan
    5 years ago

    Tammy, you make an interesting point about yoga not triggering your migraine. Something I never considered. I too have to be careful with exercise. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Tammy Rome author
    5 years ago

    You are so right about people “blaming the patient” when it comes to stress. Where I have found yoga to be beneficial is that it is one form of exercise my body can tolerate without triggering a migraine attack. With so many days spent in bed or the couch due to pain, I need yoga to keep my body flexible.

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