7 Ways Psychology Research is Improving Lives of Migraine Sufferers

This is a guest post from Marcus at psysci.co.

Suffering with migraine headaches is an experience like no other. The aura of light which can move across your visual field is uniquely disturbing; the progression of the pain through your head is uniquely excruciating; and the effects on your lifestyle are uniquely debilitating.

One of the most frustrating things about migraines is the fact that scientists still do not know exactly why and how they happen, nor the best treatments. But they’re trying. Every day we’re learning something new about migraines.

Here are 7 things psychology researchers have recently discovered that can improve the lives of migraine sufferers:

1. Migraines Aren’t Caused by Expanding Blood Vessels

A recent shift in scientific understanding of migraines has flipped everything we know about migraines on its head. The popular belief about migraines is that it acts like any other headache, opening up the blood vessels and thus requiring a “vasoconstrictor” (blood vessel constrictor) for treatment.

However, using data from MRI scans, researchers generated support for the idea that blood vessels outside the skull do not expand during a migraine, and the arteries inside the brain that did expand remained expanded even after the migraine headache has passed. This indicates that something other than just vasodilation is responsible for migraine headaches.

2. Pain from Migraines Can Improve by Thinking Positively

Migraine sufferers may scoff at the idea that they have any sort of control over their migraines. Indeed, one of the most disturbing parts of a migraine is the crushing feeling of inevitability upon receiving an aura or starting to feel the pain.

However, it’s hard to argue with the innovative, counter-intuitive results of this recent study, demonstrating that taking a placebo pill – with no actual migraine medication – can reduce pain if one only believes that the medication will work.

3. Believing You Can Control Your Migraines Is the First Step

Understanding that a placebo pill can improve migraine pain brings a host of questions to the forefront: What does migraine medication actually do? Do scientists even know what can improve migraines?

These questions are an important first step along the road to successfully managing your migraines. Psychologists believe that migraine sufferers gain an important confidence boost when they realize that they can influence the frequency of their migraines simply through their own behaviour.

4. Therapy Can Be an Effective Tool to Help Migraines

One of these behaviours that can benefit migraine sufferers, especially people who get migraines very frequently or chronic sufferers, is undergoing therapy.

While there is evidence that factors such as light, blood pressure, genetic predisposition, and other physical factors are responsible in part for the onset of a migraine, it is also true that stress, mood, environment, and emotional stability also play a role. Research suggests that therapy can be an effective tool to manage these factors and prevent yourself from getting in situations that may trigger a migraine.

5. There May Be a Genetic Link Between Migraines and Depression

Along with effective migraine management strategies, psychology researchers are actively pursuing research avenues that could uncover the mysterious set of genetic and physical conditions that cause migraines.

Along this line, research has demonstrated  a genetic link between the abnormally high co-occurrence of migraines with major depression. Linking the genetics of migraines to the genetics of vascular dysfunction in this massive study is another important step on the journey towards understanding the genetics underlying migraines.

6. Migraine Headaches Have Been Linked to Concussions in Athletes

An area that has received increased attention in the media recently is the link between concussions and mental illness, most notably in connection with the United States’ American Football.

Research this year found an association between migraine headache and concussion in athletes, though it stopped short of establishing a causal relationship – whether propensity for migraines leads to getting concussions easier, or whether getting concussions can cause migraines.

7. Eating a Salty Diet May Help Stop Migraines

Finally, one of the cheeriest research findings for migraine sufferers to come out in recent years is that people who eat a lot of salt report fewer migraines, according to an article published August, 2016.

While is it known that sodium ions activate neurons and make them more excitable, what is most encouraging about this new link between migraines and sodium is that it offers migraine sufferers an easy (and delicious) opportunity to take control of their diet and do something active to try and improve their migraines.

Migraine headaches are one of the most unique, puzzling, and painful medical conditions out there. Migraine sufferers can take comfort in the fact that psychologists are doing all they can to understand migraines, and to find out how to beat them.


Marcus regularly blogs at psysci.co a psychology, science and health blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and help individuals’ everyday lives.

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