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Tai Chi for Headaches & Migraines

Medical Report: Headaches, Migraines and Tai Chi

Author: 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), 


  • Headache disorders are among the most common disorders of the nervous system.
  • It has been estimated that 47 percent of the adult population have headache at least once within last year in general.
  • Headache disorders are associated with personal and societal burdens of pain, disability, damaged quality of life and financial cost.
  • A minority of people with headache disorders worldwide are diagnosed appropriately by a health-care provider.
  • Headache has been underestimated, under-recognized and under-treated throughout the world.


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:


  • Cluster headaches – sharp pain occurring intermittently throughout the day that can last for days to months only to disappear spontaneously.
  • Sinus headaches – dull, achy pain occurring at the front of the face and head due to swelling of the sinus passages.


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,


  • Over-the-counter medications.
  • Prescription medications.
  • Rest in a quiet, dark room.
  • Hot or cold compresses to your head or neck.
  • Massage and small amounts of caffeine.


In addition, as over-the-counter pain medications are generally ineffective with cluster headaches, the Mayo Clinic recommends, 


  • Preventive medications.
  • Injectable medications, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex, Sumavel Dosepro, others), for quick relief during an attack.
  • Prescription triptan nasal sprays, such as zolmitriptan (Zomig) or sumatriptan (Imitrex).
  • Inhalation of 100 percent oxygen through a mask.
  • Pacing, rocking or head rubbing because most people feel restless during a cluster headache.


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. 


  • Ever since a 1989 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, the psychological benefits of those practicing Tai Chi has been extensively researched. In this now classic text, La Trobe University researchers assessed 33 Tai Chi novices and 33 regular practitioners. It was observed in both groups that, “Tai Chi raised heart rate, increased noradrenaline excretion in urine, and decreased salivary cortisol concentration. Relative to baseline levels, subjects reported less tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and state-anxiety, they felt more vigorous, and in general they had less total mood disturbance.” In addition to the subjective benefits experienced by the participants, the significance of this study is that Tai Chi’s ability to decrease salivary cortisol levels equates it directly with its capacity to decrease stress in someone’s life. As cortisol levels are a well-known stress marker, this study convincing proves that Tai Chi is an effective stress management tool.
  • More recently, in 2013, the Journal of Investigative Medicine published in article in which University of New Mexico researchers conducted a literature review evaluating how people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) respond to mind-body practices like Tai Chi. Of the 96 articles identified, 16 were used for the review and the researchers discovered, “Mind-body practices incorporate numerous therapeutic effects on stress responses, including reductions in anxiety, depression, and anger, and increases in pain tolerance, self-esteem, energy levels, ability to relax, and ability to cope with stressful situations. In general, mind-body practices were found to be a viable intervention to improve the constellation of PTSD symptoms such as intrusive memories, avoidance, and increased emotional arousal.” The authors encouraged readers, clinicians and patients to explore individualized treatment plans “enhanced by mind-body interventions as part of ongoing self-care.”


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.



  • For example, in 2010, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine published an article from Tufts University School of Medicine researchers that systematically reviewed the effects of Tai Chi on common fibromyalgia-related conditions like stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance in eastern and western populations. In total, of the 29 articles they found, Tuft researchers evaluated 19 studies highlighting the anxiety-reducing ability of Tai Chi. Of significant interest is an eight-study group reflecting data from 359 participants with “symptomatic osteoarthritis, healthy adults, elderly with cardiovascular disease risk factors, individuals with fibromyalgia, and adolescents with ADHD found that Tai Chi practiced 2 to 4 times a week (30 to 60 minutes/time) for 5 to 24 weeks was associated with a significant reduction in anxiety.” For one activity (i.e. Tai Chi) to affect such a wide variety of health concerns points to the unbelievable, global benefits Tai Chi has on the body. This point cannot be stressed enough as there are not many things that can do this, especially in regards to people battling fibromyalgia!


  • According to a 2008 article printed in the journal Neurology, research supports that mind-body interventions like Tai Chi can help people suffering from “general pain, back and neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, muscular dysfunction, stroke, aging, Parkinson disease, stroke, and attention deficit–hyperactivity.” In fact, researchers state that, “There are several conditions where the evidence for mind–body therapies is quite strong such as migraine headache.” Particularly, people with chronic tension and mixed type headaches benefit the most.
  • To date the only trial directly testing Tai Chi’s effect on headache patients was published in 2007 in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Forty-two people with tension-type headaches volunteered to be part of a study that included two groups: one in which 60 minute Tai Chi sessions were practiced twice a week for 15 weeks; and a control group that did not participate in Tai Chi. Of the 30 people who completed the study, the data reported showed favorable results in regards to Tai Chi. According to the paper, “Analysis revealed six statistically significant effects of the [Tai Chi group] on the outcome variables as follows: pain, energy/fatigue, social functioning, emotional well-being, the mental health summary score and the [headache status] score. Each of these differences favored the [Tai Chi] group.”  Thus, due to its effect on quality of life and total body health, researchers concluded, “As an intervention for headache, Tai Chi offers several benefits over conventional treatment.” This should be no surprise, as Tai Chi directly addresses the root cause of tension headaches, stress, which is something medicine cannot do. 


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.


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