Migraine Sufferers Find Relief in Artistic Expression

From the WebMD Archives

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."

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.


But listen to the migraine sufferers themselves, who insist that art helps. "Without a doubt, art helps relieve headaches," says the contest's second-place winner, photographer Thomas C. Lolan of Cincinnati, who submitted a digitized, computer-generated photograph. His migraine-themed depiction: A woman with her head in a vise.

"When I'm at the computer or doing photography, those are the times when I have the fewest headaches," Lolan tells WebMD. "When I keep my mind focused on the subjects, I can ignore the other things that might induce the headache. Stress -- that's what triggers my headaches. But when I have my camera in my hand, I'm in control. My work allows me to relax."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Jacqueline Brooks, MBBCH, MRCPsych on June 11, 2001
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