A week in my . . . migraine clinic: ‘I love helping people move past the misery of migraine’
Niamh Flynn works with hypnosis to help bring relief to migraine sufferers
Niamh Flynn, sports psychologist, certified hypnotherapy instructor and author, runs a migraine clinic in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
My interest in hypnosis developed when I fell down a flight of stairs, and began to look for a faster and more effective alternative to traditional physiotherapy and sports psychology techniques to get me back on my feet.
I was so impressed with the results that I ended up studying hypnosis and using it with my own clients in my sports psychology clinic.
During 10 years of working with hypnosis for every type of issue, ranging from anxiety and weight loss to chronic pain, the positive, rapid results I saw were startling, but I did not really understand the biology or the psychoneuroimmunology of hypnosis well enough to satisfy my curiosity.
This is what led me to go back to NUI Galway in 2010 to embark on a PhD research study investigating the use of an online hypnosis intervention as a novel treatment for migraine.
The purpose of the research was to help migraine sufferers to decrease the severity and frequency of their migraine and to decrease the disability associated with the condition. The results of an online trial I carried out were impressive: a 48 per cent drop in headache disability and a 60 per cent drop in pain catastrophising in just 10 weeks.
There was also a decrease in the number of hours of migraine suffered overall. It was really good to hear from people on the trial about how much their lives had improved as a result of this natural, drug-free treatment.
While we still don’t fully understand the causes of migraine, I came to understand much more about the physiology and psychology of this debilitating condition, which affects 13-18 per cent of women and 5-10 per cent of men regularly.
There are medications available that can prevent migraine and can stop an attack in its tracks. Some of these are heavy-duty medications such as betablockers, triptans and anti-epileptic medications, which all have their own potential side effects and can be costly.
There is sufficient scientific evidence to show that, in many instances, hypnosis is more effective than medication and other therapies in eliminating or reducing the frequency or intensity of migraines. Neuroimaging studies are now shedding more light on the physiological mechanisms of hypnosis.
The results of my PhD study led me to develop a programme called ProMigraine specifically for people who suffer from migraine and to write a book about the topic, ProMigraine – End Migraine Fast.
The pain associated with migraine is much more severe than a headache and can last anywhere from four to 72 hours. It is sometimes accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations, nausea, vertigo and vomiting.
Migraine sufferers will often want to flee to a dark room and bury their head in darkness until the pain subsides.
Stress has been identified as the single most common precipitating factor in migraine. Other triggers include lack of sleep, fatigue, head and neck injuries, weather, hormonal changes, certain foods and mineral deficiencies.
For those who have never experienced hypnosis, or who know little about it other than watching a stage show, it may be useful to know that you are always completely in control when you are in a state of trance.
You will accept only suggestions you want and if you are using hypnosis for migraines, these suggestions should be directed towards alleviating specific migraine triggers, disabilities and consequences.
Hypnosis works on multiple levels, It is not just about acting as an analgesic, where it can numb or eliminate the pain of migraine. Used effectively, hypnosis also works by helping patients to reduce their stress levels by altering perception.
Three years spent trying to balance my PhD research with running my business and writing my programme meant working long hours seven days a week with little free time. Now that the research project is finished, I have begun to overhaul the business, a task that is both challenging and exciting.
My normal routine consists of dealing with phone calls and emails on Monday mornings. Monday afternoons are dedicated to working on scripts for my hypnotherapy-based migraine clinics. It is important to keep the information updated and the scripts specific to the condition and, if possible, to the personal requirements of each group.
On Monday evenings, I will often see clients at my clinic at the Galway Clinic. It is easier for people who work during the day to come in the evening. A new client must have a letter from their GP or neurologist confirming a diagnosis of migraine.
When a client comes for their first consultation, I have a chat with them about their goals for the session and explain how hypnosis works. I explain that they will be fully aware during the session, can hear everything and could open their eyes and walk out the door if they wanted to. It depends on each person and how motivated they are, but I find that a course of six sessions tends to be very helpful for most people, and if they find they are in a stressful situation a year down the line, generally one or two sessions will get them back on track again very quickly.
Tuesday is the busiest day of my week in terms of seeing clients. My first appointment is scheduled for 10am and I work until late in the evening. People attend the clinic for a range of different reasons as well as migraine, including the alleviation of anxiety and improvement of sports performance. Most people notice an improvement even after the first session of hypnosis.
I am editing a book at the moment, so this occupies a few hours on Wednesday mornings. The afternoon is an opportunity to promote forthcoming hypnotherapy training courses, as I am also a certified instructor for hypnotherapy with the National Guild of Hypnotists.
One of the changes to the business this year was to bring one-day introductory hypnosis courses to a wide range of professionals, including health professions. The way information is presented to patients can have a significant effect on their reaction to diagnosis and the progression of their illness. We look at how words affect brain physiology and patient reaction, and explain how to apply simple and basic hypnosis skills.
I usually do my administration work on Thursdays. I spend most of Friday working with clients, and in the afternoon I might meet one of the graduates from the hypnotherapy training course. The weekend hypnotherapy courses, which run over Saturdays and Sundays, are held both in Galway and Dublin.
The most rewarding part of my job is, without a doubt, being able to help free migraine patients from a life of misery.
For more information, see promigraine.com or bodywatch.ie
Out of hours
I don’t have much free time outside work these days but I do love to walk the Prom in Salthill early every morning; it’s a great way to start the day. I also enjoy meeting up with friends, going to the cinema and going on photo shoots with a photographer friend of mine, which is a lot of fun as I get to use the right side of my brain for a change.