Music can trigger my migraine attacks, but it can also be therapeutic. Here’s how I’ve found a balance.
There’s something incredible about finding an album you can listen to from beginning to end without skipping a song. The album has such resonance that you can almost picture it being raised to the rafters, like when they retire the jersey of a beloved athlete.
The album that comes to mind for me is Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
When I first got her album, like most, I gravitated to the song “Doo Wop (That Thing).” It had an iconic video with a side-by-side view of New York City in the 1960s and late 1990s.
I remember singing along to it with my friends, trying to emulate the soulfulness of her voice.
Her lyrics made me feel like she had a window into my life. She put words to the pain of loves lost and unrequited. I would play her songs on a loop and find myself wanting to retreat from my friends and spend time alone with the music.
That’s what music can do.
It can capture exactly what you’re feeling at a given moment. When you’re with friends, it can make you feel connected, like you’re living out a best friend montage. It can also be a sanctuary when you’re craving alone time.
A good album is all these things. But if you’re like me and live with chronic migraine, music can be as much a curse as it is a blessing.
With this in mind, here’s what I’ve learned about the therapeutic side of music for those of us who live with migraine.
Music therapy involves administering musical interventions under the guidance of a trained professional. For instance, a therapist might use specific musical arrangements or prescribe the timing and duration of songs.
Music therapy can help treat a variety of conditions, including:
A 2021 pilot study involving 20 adults found that music therapy, delivered via a smartphone app, helped reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of migraine episodes. Participants also reported a decrease in medication intake and their levels of anxiety and depression.
Though small, the study highlighted the importance of having choice and autonomy when it comes to music. Participants had a choice of length and genre when using the app.
Preferences aside, you don’t always get to choose the music you’re exposed to. For instance, you might have grown up in a household where you weren’t allowed to listen to certain artists. Maybe you were chastised for your musical tastes or forced to play a certain musical instrument.
I was born in Trinidad and grew up listening to soca, calypso, and reggae at festivals and family gatherings. Music blared over loudspeakers and made my ears vibrate. I loved reggae, but not at the decibel level the rest of my family enjoyed.
I felt like a bit of an outsider for not sharing their love of all kinds of Caribbean music.
Now, I steer clear of loud, percussive music altogether because it can trigger a migraine attack. In addition, I no longer equate my cultural identity with how much I embrace my musical heritage.
Instead, I recognize that musical tastes are formed over a lifetime. Like with Hill’s album, music can make you feel connected, making memories with others, or it can cause undeniable joy, when you’re belting out a song all alone in your bedroom.
The prodrome symptoms I most frequently experience are light sensitivity, nausea, and neck pain. Other symptoms include fatigue, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, depressed mood, or food cravings.
Recognizing my symptoms during the prodrome stage helps me intervene. Sometimes, early intervention can help me prevent a migraine attack; other times, early intervention helps reduce the severity or duration of my attacks.
I learned that loud music was a migraine trigger for me when living by a neighbor who would blast music for hours on end.
Recently, I was at work when a group of students gathered just outside my office window to celebrate the end of the school year.
They had a full setup with amps and microphones for a mini-concert. As a performer started playing his guitar, I could feel the vibrations pulsing through my ears. I kept telling myself it would be over soon.
After 3 hours of listening to heart-pounding music that I couldn’t tune out, I was in the midst of a full-blown migraine attack. My symptoms lasted for 2 1/2 days.
In hindsight, what I should have done was go home sick to avoid exposing myself to a known stressor. Sometimes I find myself not making these choices out of fear that others will think I am exaggerating.
This feeling stems from living with an invisible illness, where it’s common to downplay symptoms that others can’t see.
Music can be healing — when it’s a genre you like, at the volume you enjoy, and when it’s within your control.
If you’re someone who experiences sensitivity to sound during the prodrome stage of a migraine episode, music might not be your best option for easing your symptoms. Instead, music may be best used as a part of your self-care routine to reduce stress and improve your mood.
What’s important is intention. With music, and any other form of self-care, choosing when and how you listen can make all the difference.
Medically reviewed on July 18, 2022
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