“Progressive Muscle Relaxation”: tried and tested migraine prevention

The fact that stress is a key factor in the development of migraine attacks is undisputed and repeatedly backed up by research. In everyday life, it is clear that people with migraine who succeed in reducing or even avoiding stress can see a considerable improvement in their symptoms. However, this is often difficult to achieve in everyday life. So, how can it be done? Studies on this topic show that regular exercises for targeted relaxation can have a very positive effect here. One method which was specifically designed for this, and which has been successfully employed for some time, is so-called “progressive muscle relaxation”.

“Progressive muscle relaxation”: what exactly is it?

In the 1920s and 1930s, the American doctor and psychologist Edmund Jacobson (1888-1983) developed a relaxation method with which patients were meant to improve their instinct for muscular tensions in the body and learn targeted relaxation. The exercises are called “progressive” because gradually, bit by bit (= progressive), they incorporate one muscle group after the other. The aim of the technique is to improve bodily awareness and to purposefully guide the entire body into a state of deep relaxation through the conscious tensing and relaxation of different muscle groups. Many users find these exercises highly beneficial and report a significant reduction in their personal stress levels.

Originally, Jacobson had incorporated 16 different muscle groups into the relaxation exercises. In order to simplify their practical implementation, they were later developed further and shortened. For example, a ten-minute version, which can easily be integrated into your daily routine, can be found on our homepage and in our app “Prevent Headache”. The method has already been used to prevent migraine since the 1970s. Later, it also proved to be very useful for preventing tension-type headache. In practice, it became apparent that its easy learnability and versatile implementation (in terms of time as well as space) is particularly advantageous for the patients.

The figures support the method

An early analysis of the effectiveness of progressive muscle relaxation for preventing migraine was already carried out in 1980. It examined the effectiveness of various methods – e.g. biofeedback and autogenetic training in addition to progressive muscle relaxation. In total, six different studies were included in the overall evaluation. At 53%, progressive muscle relaxation was able to provide a considerable improvement in symptoms. This method is therefore the most effective out of the evaluated preventative measures for migraine.

The effectiveness of progressive muscle relaxation for migraine prevention could also be repeatedly proven in the last few years. In a German study from 2016, people with migraine carried out regular exercise units over a period of six weeks. Initially, they incorporated 16 muscle groups, in line with Jacobson’s idea. This was subsequently reduced to seven and finally to just four muscle groups in the following two sessions. The number of migraine attacks which the affected people had per month, as well as the total number of days on which they experienced migraine, were measured. After the program had ended, the number of attacks was reduced by 41% and the number of migraine days by 43% - a notable figure. Better still: the positive effect was stable and continued during a follow-up period.

What makes progressive muscle relaxation so effective?

Through in-depth research, we know that it is highly likely that this relaxation technique affects how we perceive and process pain. It is assumed that, due to inherited factors, the natural pain processing of people with migraine is particularly activated in comparison to people without migraine. This increases the imminent risk of attacks. At the same time, pain signals are perceived much more quickly and more intensely.

Making use of muscle relaxation can lower the activation level in pain processing, which is typically raised for people with a predisposition to migraine. At the same time, this stimulates pain-inhibiting areas in the brain. This means that, in a sense, the exercises have a dual positive effect. As a result, the frequency of the attacks, the severity of the pain, and medication usage, are all significantly reduced. In addition, a considerable improvement in terms of mental stress, which develops in affected people through the migraine, can be observed. In the studies, it is emphasised repeatedly that progressive muscle relaxation is better than other, non-medicinal measures due to its high effectiveness, but also due to its easy learnability and implementation.

Hugely significant: people with migraine are regaining their independence

Furthermore, an additional observation by the scientists might offer encouragement to many people with migraine. Over the period during which the patients were regularly making use of the relaxation technique, they became increasingly confident in their own ability to handle ‘their’ migraine. With every stage of using the exercise, they became more and more certain that they could manage this illness themselves and did not feel as helpless as they had before when faced with migraine. This feeling often results in a significant improvement in quality of life for the affected people and can embolden them to begin taking on further preventative measures for migraine. In this way, muscle relaxation not only leads to a marked improvement in symptoms, but can in fact pave the way for affected people to have a sustainable, active, and preventative approach to the illness.

  • References
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