Non-drug treatment of insomnia helps headaches

Migraine sufferers are more likely to have insomnia than people without migraines. Depression and anxiety, which are more common in migraineurs can often lead to insomnia as well. Surveys indicate that 38% of migraine sufferers sleep less than 6 hours, compared to 10% of the general population. Insomnia is more common in patients with chronic migraine compared with patients who have episodic migraines. Chronic migraine is defined as having 15 or more headache days each month with a migrainous headache on at least 8 of those days.

Most people are reluctant to start taking sleep medications because of the reasonable fear of becoming dependent on medicine, having somnolence the next day and other short-term and long-term side effects. Fortunately, non-drug therapies can be quite effective. In some, natural remedies, such as magnesium, valerian root and melatonin work well without any side effects. Another approach is cognitive-behavioral. According to a study by psychologists at the University of Mississippi, behavioral treatments can be effective in relieving insomnia and in reducing headaches in people with chronic migraine.

The researchers compared cognitive-behavioral therapy specifically developed for insomnia with sham treatment. Those in the active group were asked to go to sleep at the same time, try to stay in bed for 8 hours, avoid reading, watching TV or using their cell phone in bed, and not to nap. If they could not fall asleep after 30 minutes, they were told to get up and engage in a quiet activity. Some were also subjected to sleep restriction – not being allowed to sleep for more hours than the patients reported getting prior to treatment, in the hope that this will lead to better sleep in the long term. The sham group was instructed to eat some protein in the morning, eat dinner at the same time, keep up with their fluid intake, perform range of movements exercise, and regularly press on an acupuncture point above the elbow.

After two weeks of this intervention headaches improved in the sham group slightly more than the active group, but six weeks later, headache frequency dropped by 49% in the active group and 25% in the sham group. Improvement in insomnia symptoms strongly correlated with the headache frequency. The cognitive-behavioral group had a significant increase in the total sleep time and the quality of sleep.

This was a relatively small study, but there is a large body of evidence that behavioral therapies do relieve insomnia. And it is no surprise that better sleep is associated with fewer headaches since sleep deprivation is a common migraine trigger. Sleep restriction is the only part of this treatment that has contraindications – it should be avoided in patients with bipolar disorder or epilepsy.

Another simple method, which I’ve used over the years whenever I cannot fall asleep, is visualization. You have to use not only visual images, but engage all of your senses. For example, imagine yourself in a place where you tend to feel relaxed (lying on a beach, on a cool lawn, on a float in a pool, etc). See all the details and also hear the sound of the wind or waves, smell the ocean or the grass, feel the touch of the wind or sand. It takes an effort at first, but use the same image every time and after a while, as soon as you go to that place, you fall asleep in minutes. Here I found more detailed instructions for this method.

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