Almost everybody has had a headache at some point in their lives. Brought on by stress, hormones, hunger, or seemingly no explainable reason at all, we’re all familiar with a terrible throbbing that won’t relent.
While some of us can get by with an ibuprofen, a glass of water, or a nap, some four million chronic sufferers have tried virtually everything for relief, to no avail. But the Cleveland Clinic is convinced there’s more to managing headache pain than medical interventions, and they’re on a mission to help chronic headache sufferers get the relief—and the freedom—they desperately need. In an inventive new program dubbed IMATCH, patients are enrolled in a three-week course, in which they come to the clinic each day from nine-to-five for interdisciplinary therapy. A sort of “headache camp” for grown-ups, the program involves some drug therapy, an exercise and physical therapy regimen, and group and individual psychotherapy—with sessions including family members and care providers as well as the patients themselves. The first thing that happens at camp: participants receive blood infusions to help clear their systems of any remaining medications, and instead of immediately pumping them full of new drugs (medications become a last-resort pain management technique), they’re given new tools for dealing with pain. The biggest ax in their toolbox? Mindfulness.
According to the Clinic, the goal of the program isn’t simply to eliminate pain, though “some reduction in pain is common, treatment focuses on improving [one’s] ability to function in the face of pain.” Though this may seem inadequate to some, participants do end up reporting “significant decreases in the severity and frequency of their headaches, increases in daily function and improvements in mood.” So how, exactly, does mindfulness play into pain management? One graduate of the program, Linda Overholt, says that practicing mindfulness has quite literally changed her life. She has struggled with headaches since her early 30s, but as she approached age 50, the pain intensified. Every month, Linda was plagued by at least 20 days wrecked with a headache. Now, as a graduate of the program, Linda has learned to use mindfulness any time the pain presents itself—which is almost daily. Though pain fights for her attention, she refuses to give it any power. Her focus is no longer on the pain itself, or even avoiding it—instead, she is mindful of things that will empower wellness. She’s learned to pay attention to each diet choice she makes, and how adequate her hydration levels are at any given moment. If she feels throbbing coming on, she becomes cognizant of her body and her posture, and she stops her day to exercise—after all, she’s learned at ‘camp’ how amazing endorphins are at naturally taking down pain. Though a headache may call her to that cozy chair or her bed for a nap, she’s aware of her own control, her power to choose her own treatment, her ability to continue on with her life despite a headache. Mindfulness may lead her to realize she needs to practice a relaxation or diversion technique. Or she may decide the best treatment for one excruciating moment may be reaching out to a friend, because she knows that mental and emotional well-being is paramount to managing pain.
The pain of chronic headaches—and really any chronic type of pain—is almost always accompanied by emotional distress or even despair. But doctors at the Cleveland Clinic encourage patients to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings without letting them cause automatic reactions. Linda reflects, “Chronic pain is intense. The mind can so often bite off more than it can chew. I used to wonder what was wrong with me. I struggled with fear of the future—if the pain is this bad now, how will I ever take care of my home, what will old age look like, etc.” But she knows these kinds of thoughts are unnecessary burdens for her to bear, and many of her fears are not based in reality. Reality is just this moment, right here, right now. This kind of moment-to-moment, positive mindfulness is crucial for chronic pain sufferers. Pain is only ever exacerbated by depression and despair. And depression and despair most definitely intensify pain. Thus, the dark circle of chronic illness. Mindfulness can stop this cycle in its tracks by allowing the patient to take back control and climb out of the gloom, a single moment at a time. For Linda, though the pain is real and often overwhelming, she asks herself, “Can I survive this moment? Can I make it through one more?” Prior to the program, she would’ve hesitated. Now, the answer is ‘yes.’ She’s convinced that chronic pain doesn’t have to stop life completely. “As I continue being mindful of all these factors, I’ve coaxed the pain behind me, and it’s my goal to keep it there.”