Clinical Topics

Behavioral Therapy for Migraine and Tension-Type Headache

An Interview with Steven M. Baskin, PhD


Steven M. Baskin, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the New England Institute for Neurology and Headache in Stamford, Connecticut, recently answered the Migraine Resource Center’s questions about the benefits of behavioral therapy in the treatment of migraine and tension-type headache.

Alan M. Rapoport, MD: Could you please give a brief description of the 5 best modalities of behavioral therapy for migraine and tension-type headache?

Steven M. Baskin, PhD: The most researched modalities that have a good evidence base for both migraine and tension-type headache (TTHA) are relaxation therapies that often combine abdominal breathing with some form of progressive relaxation, electromyography (EMG) biofeedback therapy where headache patients learn to decrease scalp and neck muscle tension utilizing muscular biofeedback, thermal biofeedback where migraine sufferers learn a way to warm their hands which often creates a low arousal state that may reduce brain hyperexcitability, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to learn stress management. The combination of behavioral medicine techniques plus preventive pharmacological treatment has been showed to be more efficacious than either treatment alone. (Holroyd KA, et al. Effect of preventive (β blocker) treatment, behavioural migraine management, or their combination on outcomes of optimised acute treatment in frequent migraine: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2010;1-12)

CBT to treat insomnia has also been shown to reverse many chronic migraine sufferers back to episodic migraine. (Smitherman TA, et al. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia to Reduce Chronic Migraine: A Sequential Bayesian Analysis. Headache 2018;58:1052-1059)

Dr. Rapoport: How do you identify a patient who may benefit from behavioral therapy over acute medication, and what is the first step that you suggest?

Dr. Baskin: Behavioral therapies for migraine management are typically preventive therapies that can and should be combined with medications to control acute attacks. There are behavioral principles that can maximize adherence to abortive agents in order to optimize acute care.

Dr. Rapoport: Which tends to work the best for migraine?

Dr. Baskin: What works best is to first do a good behavioral assessment of the frequency, duration, intensity, and disability level of their headaches as well as current stress levels, history, and adherence to drug and nondrug therapies, and psychiatric comorbidities. A program should then be developed that includes some combination of pharmacological and behavioral interventions to address these issues. It is important to increase self-efficacy: patients’ belief in the ability to control the headache, belief in the ability to manage emotional reactivity to pain, and belief that they can achieve functionality in the presence of a significant headache disorder.

Dr. Rapoport: Who should not have biofeedback therapy?

Dr. Baskin: Biofeedback has shown to be effective in treating migraine and TTHA. It has not been shown to be effective in treating trigeminal autonomic cephalgias (TACs) such as cluster headache. Like pharmacological therapies, it is less effective in chronic migraine that is daily and constant. A patient with severe psychiatric disorder should be treated for their psychiatric disorder before beginning biofeedback therapy.

Dr. Rapoport: Some doctors see patients twice per week for several months. What is your typical routine for behavioral therapy?

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