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Migraine Sufferers Find Relief in Artistic Expression

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WebMD Health News

June 11, 2001 -- Eyes closed, hands covering her face, the woman is clearly suffering -- the pain of her migraine preserved forever on canvas.

"Painting is a very powerful medium, a powerful tool to express emotions," says Tiffany Slayburgh of Knoxville, Tenn. Two acrylic works by Slayburgh won first place over 200 other entries in the Migraine Masterpiece art contest sponsored by the National Headache Foundation. While one of her paintings depicts the suffering, the second canvas gives hope -- "moving on with your life," she tells WebMD.

A migraine sufferer herself, Slayburgh has dealt with the headaches for five years. Her mother has struggled for her own relief for nearly a decade. Producing the paintings, she says, "was a wonderful way to get relief ... to express the pain of the experience."

The pain, the nausea, the feeling that one's head is splitting in half -- until you have had a migraine, it's difficult to comprehend the agony that sufferers endure on a regular basis.

"You learn volumes from these paintings -- more than you ever could from reading a stack of medical journals," says Randy Vick, MS, chair of a master's degree program in art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Vick also helped judge the migraine art competition.

For the artist -- even for someone not trained in art -- finding expression in the visual arts can bring healing, says Vick. In fact, in many healthcare settings, art has found a place as therapy. Migraine sufferers are among those gaining some measure of relief through artistic expression.

"The essence of art therapy is to engage the patient in learning something about himself, to explore the making of the art product as well as the art process -- to find understanding of themselves in their work," Vick tells WebMD.

The therapy often lies in the very process of making art, he says. "The physical involvement and activity, the engagement of head and hands together -- it is productive, freeing, illuminating." Therapy, too, "can come from looking at form and color, thinking through the narrative or story of the work."

"The beauty of art is that it can be so personal and idiosyncratic," Vick tells WebMD.

He would like to see many more artists -- or could-be artists -- enjoy expression and relaxation through drawing, painting.

Though psychological stress is not the only component to migraine, it does contribute. So for many headache sufferers, "if you can use art as a release of stress, it will help to some degree."

"It makes sense," says Panayiotis Mitsias, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and director of the headache clinic at Henry Ford Hospital and Health Sciences Center in Detroit.

"Essentially, [art therapy] is a behavior modification that can have some influence on the ultimate frequency and severity of attacks," Mitsias tells WebMD. "Theoretically it could, anyway. I don't think it will be a universal type of therapy ... not all migraines are triggered by stress."

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