Treating headaches with EMDR


Headaches are the most common pain-related complaint and the seventh leading ailment seen in medical practice. Yearly, over 35% of the population is affected by tension-type headaches. Migraine headaches are a common condition with one-year prevalence rates around 15%. Prevalence rates generally peak in the third and fourth decades but for many migraines become a chronic condition requiring a lifetime of treatment.

Migraine sufferers are frequently disabled during their acute attacks. A 2001 study found that 90% of migraineurs reported functional impairment. 53% required bed rest and nearly 30% missed 1 day of work or school within a 3-month period. Migraine in the USA results in 112 million bedridden days per year. The cost of the migraine to the total American work force is estimated at $13 billion per year in missed work days and lost productivity. Direct medical costs (i.e., MD office visits, prescription medication claims, and hospitalizations) for migraine care average $1 billion annually. Clouse & Osterhaus (1994) found that migraineurs generate twice the medical claims and two times the pharmacy claims in HMO’s when compared to patients without migraines.

Considering the sheet number of individuals afflicted with migraine and tension headaches, the societal impact with increased medical costs, lost work days, and reduced productivity represent a major public health concern.

The pharmacologic therapies have long been the most common and widely used method of treating headaches. Unfortunately, pharmacologic treatments are ineffective or inadequate for a sizeable number of patients. One third of patients participating in clinical trials with oral triptans fail to respond. Moreover, fewer than half become pain-free, which is the primary efficacy measure recommended by the International Headache Society. Reasons for considering an EMDR treatment for migraine and tension headaches are patient preferences for non-pharmacologic interventions, pregnancy, planned pregnancy or nursing, deficient stress coping skills, medication rebound, patient overuse of medications, medical contraindications, and poor medication tolerance.

In view of the state of the art of current headache treatment an EMDR approach that can eliminate severe headache pain in less time than an oral medication (20 to 30 min) and within 5 to 10 sessions may reduce frequency, duration and intensity of future headaches could result in a decrease in medication utilization, physician visits and overall medical costs, with an improvement in patient satisfaction. This would be a welcome addition to current headache treatments.

This workshop will employ lecture, demonstration and actual practice of an integrated EMDR approach. The purpose of this teaching strategy is to prepare you for clinical practice. Objectives include understanding headache etiology, headache trigger identification, threshold theory, training in the EMDR protocol used in Dr. Marcus’s migraine research, discussion of protocol utilization in clinical practice, informed consent, transference issues, and discussion of the role of provider when deploying this approach. This workshop is for advanced EMDR practitioners but previous experience in headache treatment is not required.






Steven Marcus

Original Work Citation

Marcus, S. (2007, June). Treating headaches with EMDR. Presentation at the 8th EMDR Europe Association Conference, Paris, France



“Treating headaches with EMDR,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed December 4, 2021,

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