Mindfulness and spiritual awareness: Room to treat migraine headaches?

The debilitating effects of migraine headache impedes quality of life for millions of Americans, causing additional life stress due to lost work and diminished personal life.  Consequently, it is not uncommon for migraineurs to try multiple forms of treatment, from pharmaceutical drugs to “alternative” approaches such as massage therapy or acupuncture.

The use of mindfulness training as an intervention in the treatment of migraine was the focus of recent research published in the Journal of Health Psychology. Researchers Margert Feuille and Ken Pargament of Bowling Green State University were interested in how types of mindfulness may be used as an intervention among those who experience headache pain.

Particularly, Feuille and Pargament wanted to investigate whether a spiritually-focused practice of mindfulness meditation may be a means to manage pain, suggesting “that spiritual engagement may itself be a resource in managing pain.”

Out of an initial 107 participants, 74 completed all the necessary tasks for full study involvement (including a daily adherence diary). Participants were assigned to 1 of 3 training groups involving either Standard Mindfulness Training (STM), Spiritualized Mindfulness Training (SPM) or Relaxation Instructions (R).

In addition to group training held over the course of two weeks, participants practiced their assigned technique for 20 minutes each day and wrote in the daily adherence diary. At the end of the two week period, participants engaged in a cold-pressor task (a water bath which gradually increases temperature) to gauge tolerance to pain while simultaneously gauging perceived mindfulness based on recent training.

Results suggested that STM enhanced pain-related outcomes when compared to basic relaxation training, most notably in the reported stressfulness of the task. While results did not substantiate that SPM enhanced pain-related outcomes, there was some indication that spirituality may improve mindful awareness, given that state mindfulness, as measured by the Toronto Mindfulness Scale (TMS), was significantly higher in the spiritually focused mindfulness group than the standard mindfulness group.

“This finding suggests that spirituality may enhance mindful awareness, in particular those aspects of mindfulness assessed in the TMS—that is, non-identification of the self with internal experience and willingness to experience unpleasant sensations and feelings,” suggest Feuille and Pargament.

Study limitations may have contributed to a lack of substantial findings; these limitations included the use of undergraduate students, lack of medical verification of migraine (participants identified migraine based on self-report data) and the short-term focus of the study. Feuille and Pargament also concluded that the Spiritualized Mindfulness training script may not have focused enough on spiritual content when compared to the Standard Mindfulness Training script.