People experiencing migraines might want to work on their downward dogs. A study published in the journal, Neurology, found that people with migraine headaches who take medication and regularly practice yoga have fewer headaches than people who only take medication.
"We had hypothesized that yoga would have a positive effect on patients with migraines but the degree of the benefit, that turned out to be a pleasant surprise," Dr. Gautam Sharma, a professor of cardiology at the Center for Integrative Medicine and Research at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, told TODAY via email. "Migraine may be a condition precipitated by multiple triggers and mediated by multiple pathways. Treating the person may be more important than treating the disease."
The study included 114 people with migraine headaches and researchers randomly placed them in one of two groups: Medication only or medication and yoga. People in the yoga group practiced for three times a week for an hour each time for three months. The practice "included asanas (postures), breathing exercises and relaxation."
"People improved in both the medication-only group as well as the yoga group," Sharma explained. "But the benefit was higher in the yoga group in all areas, including headache frequency, pain intensity, use of medications as well as how much migraine interfered with daily life."
People who did yoga and took medication reported an average of 9.1 headaches a month prior to the study, but after three months they experienced only 4.7 headaches a month — a 48% reduction. Those who took medication only also saw a decrease in headaches from 7.7 headaches a month to 6.8 per month, a 12% decrease.
"The study did show a surprising decrease in headache frequency (with yoga practice)," Dr. Laurie Knepper, associate professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh who did not participate in the study, told TODAY. "It might be a great adjunct to the medications that we have."
Knepper noted that the sample size was small and the researchers only followed participants for a short period of time. She hopes more researchers look at larger groups across multiple centers to see if the findings can be replicated. But even with such limitations the results indicate that yoga might be something doctors could recommend to manage pain. Current treatment plans already include lifestyle changes, such as getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and exercising.
"Lifestyle modification is often part of treatment," she explained. "We might suggest, 'Yes you should try this' if there is no physical reason that you can't do gentle yoga."
While the study didn't look at why yoga might reduce migraine headaches and pain, Sharma said what experts already understand about the practice provides some insight into why it works for headaches.
"Yoga asanas and relaxation techniques result in muscle relaxation. The local muscle tension points especially in the head and neck can thus be relieved," he said.
Sharma noted that yoga has other benefits, too, like reducing blood pressure and stress-related hormones. With much of the country experiencing increased stress lately, spending some time in downward dog might be the best thing a person could do for their mental and physical health.