Relaxation: a key part of headache prevention

“An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body”
Edmund Jacobson, physician and psychologist

A holistic approach to migraine and other types of headache encompasses a variety of methods. Medication is only one of them. Behavioral medicine approaches are effective treatment weapons. In-depth studies that meet scientific standards now provide proof that these methods work. And more and more patients are choosing behavioral methods as a non-drug treatment option.

A leading expert in pain prevention and treatment, Kiel Pain Clinic founder and director Prof. Hartmut Göbel, comments: "Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of specific relaxation techniques, such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, especially in the prevention of headaches, migraines, back pain, fibromyalgia, nerve pain, stress reactions and other conditions."

Versatile and good for lots of things: PMR

One of the most widely used techniques is Jacob’s progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR is an easy-to-learn relaxation method that aims to achieve a state of deep relaxation throughout the body by consciously tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups in succession. Practitioners actively focus on the tension and relaxation they themselves create and pay attention to the differences between these two states. Doing this can teach you to relieve existing tension.

The exercises aim to reduce muscle tension through increased body awareness. Other signs of physical agitation can be resolved this way too. By loosening tense muscles, PMR relieves pain states such as migraine and other headaches. PMR is a widely accepted and effective method of tension relief with an excellent track record not just in pain management. Its effectiveness has also been proven in the treatment of sleep disorders, anxiety and stress, high blood pressure, and other areas.

The muscle relaxation story

Progressive muscle relaxation was developed in the 1920s by Edmund Jacobson, a physician and psychologist born in Chicago in 1888.

The program of exercises he developed involved 16 muscle groups, no less. Jacobson’s original exercise regimen was later slimmed down by other scientists to make it more practical. A ten-minute version that has proven very effective in real-world use and is easy to incorporate into everyday life can be found in the app and on the home page of this website.

Scientifically proven benefit

A review of studies over a period of almost twenty years demonstrated the positive effects of relaxation techniques across a whole range of diseases. PMR was shown to be exceptionally effective for high blood pressure, headaches and sleep disorders. Relief from chronic pain and anxiety has also been reported.

Work-related stress is a never-ending problem in the nursing professions. Nursing is a notoriously high-pressure, demanding job that takes its toll in the form of an exceptionally high headache burden among nurses. The COVID19 pandemic has made a difficult situation a lot worse. But research has shown that – especially in these pandemic times – relaxation techniques noticeably reduce perceived stress, which is known to be one of the top triggers of tension headaches and migraines.

PMR is presented as an effective method in a recent paper. The authors highlight that relaxation techniques can be effective in the nursing community in particular. A combined support program of relaxation and exercise reportedly had good results in a hospital in Paris. The authors recommend extending the use of such programs to other professions.

Productivity gains for everyone

Genuine win-win: a Basel and Zurich research team studied the effects of a 6-month program of PMR and other measures introduced in Swiss pharmaceutical companies to combat stress-related headache. The results were more than convincing: a whopping 11-day reduction in sick leave. This is just one of many examples showing how “productive” (in every sense of the term) the use of relaxation techniques can be for all parties concerned.

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