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Tai Chi and Yoga for Pain Management in Neurology Now

Tai chi is one of the therapies that I’m definitely going to try. Neurology Now’s article describing how tai chi and yoga invokes the mind-body connection to relieve pain cemented my decision. Physical benefits aside, releasing tension and teaching mindfulness are the most powerful effects of tai chi and yoga, according to the article.

Mindfulness is nothing more than paying calm, moment-by-moment attention to what you are thinking and feeling. Ideal for cultivating greater awareness of the connection between mind and body, mindfulness has been shown to positively effect a range of autonomic physiological processes, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing overall arousal and emotional reactivity.

Yoga and tai chi combine the stress-reducing effects of mindfulness with low-impact movement, which is especially helpful for people who have chronic pain or physical limitations that make them relatively sedentary.

I’m captivated by the stillness of tai chi and am looking forward to trying something new. Seattle studio Embrace the Moon, which began as a program in a medical setting of tai chi for pain reduction, starts a new schedule next week. I’ll be there.

Embrace the Moon’s overview and description of tai chi styles is (relatively) concise and easy to understand. I’m finally understanding more about this discipline, which totally confuses me.

Neurology Now is an excellent free patient education magazine published by the American Academy of Neurology. You’ve probably seen it in your neurologist’s office. You can sign up for a free subscription to the magazine or read it online. I love getting it in the mail — I actually remember to read it.

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Gentle Yoga for Migraine (and Headache) Relief

Gentle yoga postures and breathing techniques may ease the intensity and frequency of migraines, according to a study in this month’s issue of the journal Headache. I didn’t need a study to tell me this, but supporting evidence is always good. While the study didn’t look at tension type headaches, I have no doubt that yoga is still beneficial.

Gentle is the operative word. Classes focused on working out, which I refer to as yogacise, will likely worsen a headache. For this reason, I avoid Ashtanga, Bikram, Vinyasa and power yoga, as well as anything offered at a gym. Finding a good yoga teacher is paramount.

Restorative yoga is a godsend during a severe headache. It’s easy and relaxing yet invigorating. “Active relaxation” is how Judith Lasater, a leader in the field, describes it. Her book Relax and Renew is a fantastic introduction to restorative yoga. Many yoga studios offer classes — ask around or Google restorative yoga in your area.

Breathing techniques were an important part of the study. Unfortunately, the abstract doesn’t say which techniques were used, but I imagine relaxation was the focus. You can learn a lot about breathwork online, but it’s more complicated than it may seem. Again, a lot of studios offer breathwork classes, which is often refereed to as pranayama.

If the cost of continuing classes is overwhelming, consider taking a
few private classes. An hour-long session runs about $60 (in Seattle),
but it won’t take many to learn how to practice at home. Nearly every teacher offers one-on-one sessions.

There are some crucial things to know if you decide to try yoga:

If you have a migraine or headache at the time of your practice, never do an inversion, which is any posture that raises your heart above your head. Blood (and energy, if you’re into that) rushing to your head during a headache or migraine will make it worse. For some people, doing inversions at all can trigger a headache. For others, inversions can help prevent future headaches.

Always tell your teacher if you have a headache. Your practice must be modified to avoid inversions or any other posture that may exacerbate your headache. Teachers are used to such requests and will be able to give you alternate poses. If not, I suggest finding another teacher.

It’s strange that the study’s lead author is in a Zoology department, but I agree with the results, so I don’t much care. How’s that for blatant disregard of my advice to evaluate medical studies carefully?

Kelly Pretlow, my dear friend and yoga teacher, kindly demonstrates a twist in this photo. Maple Leaf Community Yoga is her north Seattle studio.

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Motivating Yourself to Exercise

Even if you swear off New Year’s resolutions, thoughts of exercising may still nag at you. Not only because it is something everyone should do, but because it’s a vital component to managing migraine and CDH.

Feeling terrible is an obvious roadblock, but motivation can hinder you more. ExerciseFriends may help you overcome this obstacle. The free site helps you find people to exercise with in your neighborhood or you can simply chat with others online. The partner search includes profiles and ages of possible buddies. You can narrow your search to males only, females only or both.

Making a commitment to exercise with others is almost impossible for me. I have to cancel more often than not, so the forums seem to be a better option. My best motivation was when I checked in with a friend who I talked to almost every day.

We don’t talk as much anymore, so ExerciseFriends may be another place to say, “Yes, I exercised today. I met my goal of walking X miles.” The current posts don’t really lend themselves to this, but starting a daily role call type thread would serve the purpose. Even if no one else posts to it, the public reporting can kick you into gear. In fact, whenever I convince myself to walk next, I’ll start a thread on the support forum.

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Self-Care or Alternative Medicine?

I’ve blogged a lot about meds and medical devices, but haven’t really discussed “alternative” therapies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that none of the alternative treatments that I have tried have worked for me, so I don’t think to recommend them. The more important reason is that much of the advice of alternative practitioners is what I think of as simply taking care of myself. I do employ many of the strategies of alternative medicine; I just don’t think of them as alternative.

The non-alternative alternative therapies that I try to follow:

Eat simply prepared produce and meat
Frozen veggies make this much easier and Penzeys Spices make it tastier; both make preparation a snap. I also eat a lot of organic produce and organic free-range meat. Living in the northwest give me an advantage with this; organic is easy to come by and isn’t outrageously expensive.

Avoid inhaling potentially harmful chemicals or substances
Since most artificial scents or offensive odors trigger headaches for me, this is pretty easy. Most of my cleaning products are homemade or from Seventh Generation and candles are beeswax or soy. And, as I’ve already complained, I am careful to find home furnishings that don’t off-gas much.

Avoid potentially harmful food additives
Avoid all forms of MSG, nitrates, nitrites, sulfates, sulfites, and artificial sweeteners, flavorings or colorings. This means skipping almost all convenience foods, sauces and dressings.

Exercise and relax
My beloved yoga is out, but I try to take a short walk every day, even if it is just to my favorite coffeehouse (.8 miles round trip!). Meditation is beyond my grasp, but I do try to lie down, breathe deeply and relax all my muscles for about 10 minutes each day. This is usually when I lie down to go to sleep, but I figure every little bit counts.

Use aromatherapy
Maybe essential oils help my headaches, maybe not, but I love smelling lavender, mint and orange. I smell them straight from the bottle, rub them on my temples, burn them with a candle or put them in a spray bottle with alcohol (is that a harmful-to-inhale substance?) and use them as air fresheners.

Don’t mistake me for a whole health goody goody. These are all steps I try to do, which means that I do them most of the time unless I want to go out for dinner, get my shower really clean, take advantage of high energy days or be lazy. But I do feel better when I follow the “rules.” The days I give in to reading a book and eating cookie dough all day are indulgences that I pay for with more headaches.

(P.S. Many of the foods and products I mention are more expensive than conventional varieties. I stock up on frozen vegetables when they are on sale, burn fewer candles than I used to, and remind myself that meds are expensive too.)