Medical Report: Headaches, Migraines and Tai Chi
Eric L. Zielinski
The relationship between neck complaints and headaches cannot be ignored. The key is the primary cranial nerve (trigeminal nerve) that carries pain signals and its interaction with the trigeminocervical nucleus, which extends from the brain all the way down to the third cervical vertebral. Basically, any distortion or issues in the neck could travel up and present as head pain. Subsequently, according to the National Headache Foundation, “Many patients…find that neck exercises, physical therapy or flexibility programs (such as yoga or Tai Chi) help to relieve their headaches as well as neck pain.” This article, therefore, addresses the science and research explaining why many headache sufferers experience relief when practicing Tai Chi.
Headaches and Migraines
Headaches are all too common and often rob people of health and wellness. According to the World Health Organization (WHO),
The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines headaches as “pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. Serious causes of headaches are very rare. Most people with headaches can feel much better by making lifestyle changes, learning ways to relax, and sometimes by taking medications.”
The most common type of head pain is tension headaches and is associated with tight muscles in the jaw, neck and scalp. It has been observed that stress disorders such as depression and anxiety often lead to tension headaches. Tending to occur bilaterally (both sides of the head), many experience throbbing or pulsating that begins on one side of the head that travels to the other side. The NIH states that, “These headaches may be triggered by foods such as chocolate, certain cheeses, or MSG. Caffeine withdrawal, lack of sleep, and alcohol may also trigger them.”
Migraines, on the other hand, are much more debilitating. The difference between a migraine and a typical headache is severity and the onset of nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. What causes migraines is not exactly known, although it is believed that common triggers include stress, bright lights, weather changes, allergies, excessive caffeine, menstrual periods, and sleep deprivation among other issues.
Other types of headaches include:
Medical Research and Management
According to the Mayo Clinic, although aspirin and ibuprofen are effective for most tension-type headaches, they are not the best approach for all headaches. For instance, migraine treatments should focus on symptoms specific to migraines and include anti-nausea drugs and treatments to prevent further episodes. For example,
In addition, as over-the-counter pain medications are generally ineffective with cluster headaches, the Mayo Clinic recommends,
The side effects of pain medications vary and can become quite harmful including liver and kidney damage, heart attacks, and a number of gastrointenstinal disorders like nausea, peptic ulcers and acid reflux.
Research showing Tai Chi’s ability to help with headaches and migraines
Unlike supporting health conditions that have been researched more heavily, the research community is hesitant to concede that Tai Chi helps people with headaches and migraines. Ultimately, it’s a quantity (not quality) issue and the major hang-up is that only one clinical trial has been conducted directly testing the manner in which patients with headaches respond to Tai Chi.
In 2012, for instance, the journal Regional Anesthesia and Pain Management printed an article that emphatically stated of the five pain conditions that were evaluated – osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, low back pain, and headaches – “Tai Chi seems to be an effective intervention in osteoarthritis, low back pain, and fibromyalgia” only. Being innately focused on data and research designs, it is understandable for scientists to be hesitant to blindly accept a treatment without “proof.” Though, in the case with Tai Chi treating headaches and migraines, the proof can be see in the various trials that have been conducted in conditions commonly associated with headaches and migraines.
For instance, the National Headache Foundation states that, “Stress is one of the most common triggers of and is often associated with tension headache.” Consequently, Oregon Health & Science University researchers have uncovered that “clinical trials for chronic tension-type headaches have found that relaxation training [like Tai Chi] has significantly reduced headache activity compared to talk therapy, self-monitoring, muscle relaxant (chlormezanone), information/education, and no treatment.”
It is, therefore, no surprise that chronic headache and migraine patients have experienced profound benefits upon practicing Tai Chi because it has been proven repeatedly that Tai Chi reduces stress [enter link to “Medical Report: Stress and Tai Chi”] quite effectively.
Another possible mechanism explaining why Tai Chi helps people with headaches and migraines can be seen in the several clinical trials that have proven Tai Chi’s ability to effectively manage symptoms related to fibromyalgia [enter link to “Medial Report: Fibromyalgia and Tai Chi”]; a disorder characterized by widespread pain, morning stiffness, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, headaches and migraines.
In spite of the lack of clinical research that directly addresses Tai Chi’s ability to help people with headaches, health care officials are open to its implementation in pain management. For instance, national health care institutions like the U.K.’s National Health Service openly recommends Tai Chi as a viable stress-reduction tool for headache reduction and it is expected that more national organizations will embrace the ancient healing art.
With an emphasis on proven, stress-reduction techniques – breathing, focus, relaxation, and medication – Tai Chi has the ability to directly benefit people suffering from headaches and migraines. In addition to pain relief, Tai Chi has been proven to affect associated symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, quality of life and rapid heart rate. Further research is needed to explain the exact mechanisms as to why this occurs, however, the trials that have already been conducted provides some solid clues.