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Migraines & Headaches Health Center

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Migraine Sufferers Find Relief in Artistic Expression

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"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."

But an artful bent can be a curse as well. To better understand the relationship between art and migraine, Vick surveyed all 150 entrants in the 1998 Migraine Masterpieces contest. To his surprise, 40% returned the surveys, which is better than the average response to most survey studies.

While he found that "many people found that making art was helpful to them -- a therapeutic experience, like a miracle, ... we were surprised that sometimes making art was hurtful," he says. Sometimes the materials and processes used in art actually trigger headaches, he explains.

"Others said that tension of making artwork under deadline [as is true for commercial artists], or the light conditions they needed to work in -- the bright light or the computer -- can induce pain. The smell of solvents might trigger migraine," Vick says. "Whether their art was a vocation or hobby, some people found themselves avoiding it."

Doctors should be aware of this; so should headache sufferers, Vick tells WebMD. Making a simple switch -- to water-based paint or watercolor, for example -- might help solve the headache problem for some. Vick's study was published in a 1999 issue of Headache Quarterly.

While art therapy "has been tried with people suffering from continuous pain, like cancer-related pain, there is no study out there to indicate benefit of this form of therapy [in migraine patients]," Mitsias says.

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