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Am Fam Physician. 2007;76(10):1518-1522

Patient information: See related handout on mind-body therapies for headache, written by the authors of this article.

Author disclosure: Dr. Sierpina's work is funded by two National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, a National Institute on Aging Mind-Body Exploratory and Development Grant (R21 AG023951-01), and a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Education Enhancement award (R25 AT00586-01). Dr. Astin's work is funded by an NIH/National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Grant (R01 AT00869-04). Dr. Giordano's work is funded by Georgetown University Medical Center, the Manchikanti Distinguished Lectureship of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, the Laurence S. Rockefeller Trust, and the Samueli Institute.

Headache is one of the most common and enigmatic problems encountered by family physicians. Headache is not a singular entity, and different pathologic mechanisms are involved in distinct types of headache. Most types of headache involve dysfunction of peripheral or central nociceptive mechanisms. Mind-body therapies such as biofeedback, cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis, meditation, and relaxation training can affect neural substrates and have been shown to be effective treatments for various types of headache. Meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials show that the use of mind-body therapies, alone or in combination, significantly reduces symptoms of migraine, tension, and mixed-type headaches. Side effects generally are minimal and transient.

Headache is among the most common conditions encountered by family physicians. Although pharmacotherapy is commonly used for prophylaxis and abortive therapy of headache, it carries the risks of side effects, rebound headache, and addiction. Routine pharmacotherapy also is limited in pregnant women and in children.

Several mind-body therapies have been proven effective for the treatment of headache.1 Mind-body medicine focuses on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behaviors, and on the ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can affect health. It emphasizes an approach that respects and enhances each person's capacity for self-knowledge and self-care.2

Psychosocial and other mind-body approaches offer useful options for reducing stress-related aspects of headache and for managing pain. Tension and migraine headaches may result from work or familial stress, anxiety, depression, and musculo-skeletal conditions.3 Such headaches are often complex and multifactorial. Work-up may require investigation of menstrual changes, sinus and allergy problems, mood states, personality disorders, and lifestyle factors such as food and beverage intake and sleep patterns. Attention to these issues can guide therapy. The most common mind-body therapies and their applications in the treatment of tension and migraine headaches are listed in Table 1.4

TherapyDescriptionEffectiveness for headache
BiofeedbackA system of externally generated signals that measure some aspect of physiology (e.g., thermal biofeedback, muscle tension biofeedback, galvanic skin response to sweating)Progressive muscle relaxation and thermal and combined biofeedback effective for migraine
Muscular biofeedback effective for tension headache
Cognitive behavior therapyA method of replacing inner thoughts and dialogue that may be irrational or that contribute to distress (e.g., depression, anxiety, pain) with a revised, salutogenic script and frame of referenceEffective for migraine and tension headaches
Guided imageryThe use of inner images and symbols (self-guided or interactive) with therapies to induce a specific psychobiologic state (e.g., immune enhancement, relaxation, conflict resolution)
HypnosisThe use of aroused, attentive, focused concentration and relative suspension of peripheral awareness to create opportunities for suggestion
MeditationIntentional self-regulation of attention to inner and outer experiences (e.g., mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation)
Psychoeducational approachesCombined with other biobehavioral strategies, these methods help patients become more informed about their disease and how to manage it with improved self-efficacyStress management training effective for tension headache
Relaxation trainingMethods used to reduce sympathetic arousal and muscle tone (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation, Benson's relaxation response)Progressive muscle relaxation effective for tension headache
Combination of progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback effective for migraine in children, adolescents, and adults


Headache is not a singular entity, and different types of headache have distinct pathophysiologic mechanisms and etiologies. The most common types of headache, tension and migraine headaches, generally involve hyperactivity of central or peripheral neural nociceptive substrates, dysfunction of central pain modulatory systems, and feed-forward activation of peripheral inflammatory or muscular contractile mechanisms. Mind-body therapies can affect these neurologic pathways at multiple levels.511

Mind-Body Therapies for Headache


A meta-analysis of the behavioral literature on migraine was supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.12 Using stringent research design and data extraction requirements, 39 trials studying behavioral approaches to migraine were selected. Treatments included relaxation training, thermal and electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback, stress management training, and cognitive behavior therapy, alone or in combination. The meta-analysis showed that these treatments reduced migraine symptoms by 32 to 49 percent compared with no treatment. These effect sizes were similar to those reported in other meta-analyses of behavioral approaches for treatment of migraine.13,14

A meta-analysis of trials comparing relaxation training and biofeedback (34 trials) with drug therapy (25 trials) in patients with recurrent migraine found benefits and effect sizes to be similar between treatment groups.15 Meta-analyses of randomized trials of beta blockers (32 trials), calcium channel blockers (31 trials), and combined relaxation training and biofeedback (35 trials) showed similar levels of improvement.1517 A meta-analysis of five trials showed that thermal biofeedback improved migraine symptoms by 37 percent.18 A review of 79 biofeedback studies among children with migraine found that thermal biofeedback and combined biofeedback with progressive relaxation training were superior to other behavioral treatments, to commonly used prophylactic pharmacologic therapy, and to placebo.19

The American Academy of Neurology recommends that cognitive and behavioral treatments be considered Grade A or B level evidence.20


A meta-analysis of 35 trials on behavioral treatments for tension-type headache showed a 37 to 50 percent reduction of symptoms in treated patients compared with a 2 to 9 percent reduction in control patients.21 Therapies included relaxation training, EMG biofeedback, EMG biofeedback plus relaxation training, cognitive behavior therapy, and stress management training. The effect size was larger than those in earlier meta-analyses, with a 35 to 55 percent reduction in headache frequency and pain; however, patient variables may have significantly affected the treatment effects.14,22,23 The inclusion of patients who were younger, female, and who were solicited for a study rather than referred correlated with better results.23

Biofeedback has been found in a controlled study to relieve tension headache in adolescents.24


Compared with clinic-based behavioral therapies, minimal-contact home-based treatments using materials such as manuals or audiotapes have resulted in equal or superior clinical improvements in patients with migraine, tension, and mixed-type headaches.25 Furthermore, providing home-study materials is up to five times as cost-effective as clinic and therapist-based treatments.

A meta-analysis of seven trials found that cognitive behavior therapy improves headache activity by 49 percent.18 This treatment can be combined with relaxation training and group therapy.22

A Cochrane review concluded that there is good evidence that psychological treatments, especially relaxation training and cognitive behavior therapy, reduce the severity and frequency of chronic headache in children and adolescents.26

Another, more recent, meta-analysis examined biofeedback, relaxation training, and cognitive behavior therapy in children and adolescents with chronic headache.27 High effect sizes (more than 50 percent headache reduction) were found in patients with migraine and tension headaches compared with control patients.

Contraindications and Adverse Effects

Behavioral and mind-body therapies generally are safe. Some patients have had anxiety symptoms, particularly with relaxation exercises and meditation. These symptoms may be related to feelings of loss of control, discomfort with inactivity, fear of letting go, or underlying psychopathology. Physical symptoms may include dizziness, dyspnea, chest pain, myoclonic jerks, intrusive thoughts, or other disturbing sensory experiences.4 Although these symptoms are transient, they can be sufficiently distracting to cause patients to discontinue mind-body therapies. Thus, a good clinical relationship and follow-up is important to initiating and maintaining these therapies.

Final Comments

Physicians have a wide range of well-evidenced behavioral and mind-body therapies available for the treatment of headache in children and adults (Table 2).14,15,18,19,21,22,2427 Similar outcomes have been found for pharmacologic and behavioral treatments.13 Despite evidence from many studies, mind-body therapies are an underused treatment modality in medical practice, possibly because of lack of training, insufficient time, or lack of awareness of the evidence base supporting these therapies.28,29

TherapyEvidence ratingReferences
Migraine headache
Behavioral therapy with prophylactic drug therapyB18
Cognitive behavior therapyA15, 18, 27
Combination of progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedbackA15, 27
Electromyographic biofeedbackA15, 27
Relaxation trainingA14, 15, 18, 27
Thermal biofeedback (alone or in combination with relaxation training)A14, 15, 18, 19
Tension headache
Cognitive behavior therapyB14, 21, 22
Cognitive behavior therapy in children and adolescents with chronic headacheA26, 27
Home-based behavioral therapiesB25
Muscular biofeedbackB14, 21, 22, 24
Progressive muscle relaxationB14, 21, 22
Relaxation training in children and adolescents with chronic headacheA26, 27
Stress management trainingB14, 21, 22

Many therapies, such as the relaxation response, progressive muscle relaxation, and simple diaphragmatic breathing, can be taught quickly in the physician's office and can be practiced by the patient at home. Simple biofeedback devices are available for office or home use, such as color-changing body temperature sensors (one brand: Biodot, 800-272-2340), skin thermistors, galvanic monitors, and various computer-based or Internet-based software programs that measure heart rate variability. Muscle relaxation methods are simple and effective, and they can mitigate centrally mediated pain patterns. Books, audiotapes, compact discs, and other instructional aids can assist patients and physicians in using mind-body therapy (Table 3).

Benson H, Stuart EM. The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1992
Davis M, Eshelman ER, McKay M. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, Calif.: New Harbinger Publications, 2000
Kabat-Zinn J. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Hyperion, 2005
Rakel D. Integrative Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier, 2007
Watkins AD. Mind-Body Medicine: A Clinician's Guide to Psychoneuroimmunology. New York, N.Y.: Churchill Livingstone, 1997
Journals (peer-reviewed)
Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (
Annals of Behavioral Medicine (
Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing (
Journal of Alternative and Complementary Therapy (
Journal of Behavioral Medicine
Training (continuing medical education)
American Holistic Medical Association (
American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (
The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (
University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (

The physician's personal experience with such therapies is helpful in making recommendations to patients. Furthermore, the use of such therapies for self-care may improve professional satisfaction and decrease the effects of stress.

Professional training, continuing medical education, and experiential training in hypnosis, biofeedback, meditation, and other relaxation therapies are available. Alternatively, referral to a qualified psychologist, social work therapist, hypnotist, or biofeedback specialist may be considered, because the specialized training and equipment for some of these therapies, as well as the time limits in a primary care practice, may limit their use. Cognitive behavior therapy often requires consultation with behavioral medicine or clinical psychology professionals, but these collaborations are often useful in providing new perspectives on pain, stress, and coping mechanisms for other psychophysiologic headache triggers, and they may be valuable in the management of these conditions.

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