Systematic review of cognitive behavioural therapy for the management of headaches and migraines in adults

Br J Pain. 2015 Nov;9(4):213-24. doi: 10.1177/2049463715578291.


Aim: This systematic review aimed to establish if cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can reduce the physical symptoms of chronic headache and migraines in adults.

Methods: Evidence from searches of eight databases was systematically sought, appraised and synthesised. Screening of title and abstracts was conducted independently by two reviewers. Full papers were screened, data extracted and quality assessed by one reviewer and checked by a second. Data were synthesised narratively by intervention due to the heterogeneity of the studies. The inclusion criteria specified randomised controlled trials with CBT as an intervention in adults suffering from chronic headaches/migraines not associated with an underlying pathology/medication overuse. CBT was judged on the basis of authors describing the intervention as CBT. The diagnosis of the condition had to be clinician verified. Studies had to include a comparator and employ headache/migraine-specific outcomes such as patient-reported headache days.

Results: Out of 1126 screened titles and abstracts and 20 assessed full papers, 10 studies met the inclusion criteria of the review. Some studies combined CBT with another intervention, as well as employing varying numbers of comparators. CBT was statistically significantly more effective in improving some headaches-related outcomes in CBT comparisons with waiting lists (three studies), in combination with relaxation compared with relaxation only (three studies) or antidepressant medication (one study), with no statistically significant differences in three studies.

Conclusions: The findings of this review were mixed, with some studies providing evidence in support of the suggestion that people experiencing headaches or migraines can benefit from CBT, and that CBT can reduce the physical symptoms of headache and migraines. However, methodology inadequacies in the evidence base make it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions or to make any recommendations.

Keywords: Headache; cognitive behavioural therapy; migraine; randomised controlled trial; systematic review.