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Mindfulness-based stress reduction reduces migraine frequency



– Episodic migraine patients benefit from mindfulness-based stress reduction training, according to new research. The intervention reduced headache frequency, slightly increased whole-brain gray matter volume, and reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.


The gray matter findings may indicate opportunities for therapeutic targets, while the psychosocial findings are important in understanding migraine burden, treatment response, and personalized medicine opportunities, Shana Burrowes, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at Boston University, said at the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

In a session focused on exploring alternatives to opioids for pain treatment, Dr. Burrowes described interim results of a randomized, controlled trial testing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training for managing migraine.

In discussing the rationale for study endpoints, she explained a three-pronged model for understanding migraine. Those elements include the symptoms themselves – unilateral throbbing pain, nausea, and photophobia – and the psychosocial symptoms and comorbidities, including anxiety, depression, stress, and catastrophizing. Up to 30%* of migraine patients have comorbid depression.

Those two prongs have a bidirectional relationship, since each increases the risk of the other. For example, frequent migraine can leave people feeling anxious about when their next migraine will occur, and that anxiety can increase the risk of it occurring.

Both elements lead to the third prong, which is change in gray matter volume. “If you’re a patient with migraine, an MRI on your brain is going to look different from somebody who does not have migraine,” Dr. Burrowes said. “With all these things going on in a patient, a migraine patient is actually pretty difficult to treat.”

Therefore, the researchers focused on outcomes from each of these three domains: gray matter volume in MRI; headache frequency as a clinical outcome; and the psychosocial comorbidities of anxiety, stress, and depression.

Study participants included 98 patients with episodic migraine, defined as fewer than 15 headache days a month, and 27 controls* matched by demographics to the patients and without any chronic pain conditions. The groups were 92% female and had similar ratios of whites (75% and 77%) and college graduates (95% and 96%).

Only the patients were randomized to the two interventions, one a training on MBSR and the other focusing on stress management for headache (SMH).

The MBSR training involved group sessions, eight 2.5-hour meditation sessions, at-home practice, a half-day retreat, and then an additional four biweekly sessions. The mindfulness training specifically focused on intentionally paying attention in the moment without judgment. The SMH arm focused on education for managing headache symptoms, stress, sleep hygiene, and diet, but it did not involve any specific skills training, such as relaxation training.

All participants, including healthy controls, underwent clinical assessment and baseline MRI and psychosocial questionnaires, followed by MRI and psychosocial questionnaire follow-ups at 3 and 6 months. MRI imaging focused on the whole brain and on the bilateral insula, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and superior frontal gyrus. Patients also kept headache diaries throughout the trial.

Both intervention groups showed an increase in gray matter volume over 6 months, compared with healthy controls: 1.3% in the whole brain for SMH participants and 1.01% in the MBSR patients, compared with –1.37% in healthy participants. In the right superior frontal gyrus, gray matter volume also increased 2.62% in SMH participants and 1.25% in MBSR patients but decreased 0.19% in healthy participants.

Dr. Burrowes said she could not share specific findings on headache frequency and psychosocial outcomes because her team’s research is currently under review. Overall, however, headache frequency declined more than 50% post intervention, and 39% of migraine patients responded to the therapy.

In addition, anxiety, stress, and depression symptoms all saw improvements from MBSR and slightly but significantly mediated the effect of MBSR on migraine reduction.

Dr. Burrowes reported having no disclosures.

*The story was updated 6/20/2019.

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