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8 ways to help relieve migraine pain

Published: May 24, 2023 |7 minute read

Written by: Catherine Winters

Healthy woman jogging down the sidewalk.

Learn to identify your migraine triggers so you can help ease the throbbing pain.

In this article:

More than 37 million Americans have experienced a migraine. Yet only about half of the people meeting the criteria for a migraine have been properly diagnosed, meaning that many people with the condition might not be getting the care they need. So, what does a migraine feel like, and what’s the best way to find relief?

Types of non migraine headaches

The most common type of headache is a tension-type headache, and nearly 9 percent of the world’s population experiences one of those on any given day. A tension-type headache is characterized by a mild to moderate band of pain around the forehead and temples that lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. Experts aren’t entirely sure what causes them, but stress, fatigue and hunger might be to blame.

A much rarer form of non-migraine headache is called a cluster headache, which affects just one side of the head. Cluster headaches may be associated with a teary eye and a runny nose on the affected side. These are more common in men and people who smoke, and they may run in the family. Though cluster headaches cause severe pain, they usually ease in about three hours.

As the name implies, this second type of headache comes in clusters. “People with cluster headaches may experience several attacks per day for weeks or months, then not have any attacks for months or years,” says Wade M. Cooper, DO, director of the Headache and Neuropathic Pain Clinic at Michigan Medicine and associate professor of neurology and anesthesiology at the University of Michigan. Like tension-type headaches, the cause is unknown, but the fact that they cluster leads experts to think that they may be related to seasonal changes and our biological clocks.

What is a migraine?

Unlike nonmigraine headaches, a migraine is a “chronic, lifelong neurological disease,” says Lauren R. Natbony, MD, medical director of Integrative Headache Medicine of New York and assistant clinical professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Migraines are more common in women than men, and the hallmark migraine symptom is pulsing, throbbing pain often on one side of the head that may last a few hours to several days. A migraine can cause nausea and sometimes vomiting or weakness, and, in many cases, sensitivity to light and sound. Sometimes, it’s preceded by an aura — visions of sparkles or triangular shapes — or even slurred speech.

Note that many of these symptoms — changes in vision, vomiting, weakness, slurred speech and so on — can also be signs of a stroke or other life-threatening event. If you experience these, seek emergency medical attention and the advice of a qualified provider.

Those who experience migraines are often drained by the experience. “A migraine can incapacitate you,” says Dr. Cooper. And after the pain subsides, it can take days or even weeks to recover, which is referred to as a “migraine hangover.”

It’s also possible to experience a migraine without a headache. Ocular migraines are a type of migraine that cause temporary vision issues (momentary loss of vision or blind spots), — and they can come with or without the signature throbbing feeling of a traditional migraine.

What causes migraines?

Chronic migraine headaches tend to run in families and can have specific triggers. Triggers can vary widely, — and the same things that can lead to a headache in one person may have no effect or may even help soothe a severe migraine in others. Even taking too much prescription migraine medication (using medication more than 10 days out of the month) can backfire, triggering an attack.

Common triggers include:

  • Alcohol (especially red wine)

  • Caffeine (may be a trigger for some and help relieve pain in others)

  • Dehydration

  • Hormonal fluctuations (one reason experts think migraines are more common in menstruating women)

  • Lack of sleep

  • Light (like flashing lights or blue light from computer and phone screens)

  • Smells (like perfume or cigarette smoke)

  • Stress

  • Changes in the weather (including temperature swings and shifts in barometric pressure)

How to help relieve migraine pain

When it comes to finding relief from throbbing migraine pain, prevention is key. Here’s how to help prevent and relieve migraine pain — both before and after it starts.

1. Get to know your migraine triggers.

Getting to know your triggers can play a major role in preventing migraines. Dr. Natbony recommends keeping a diary to track when your migraine attacks occur and what was happening just before an episode.

2. Exercise regularly.

Any number of activities — running, tai chi, walking or Zumba — may help reduce episodes. “Exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers,” says Dr. Natbony. Remember that migraine treatments and triggers are personal, so for some people, high-intensity exercise can also bring on migraines. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

3. Get enough sleep.

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule may help treat migraine sufferers. National sleep organizations recommend seven to nine hours a night for most adults. Help keep your sleep-wake cycle in check with these healthy sleep hygiene tips.

4. Reduce stress levels.

Because stress can bring on migraines, de-stressing techniques, such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga may help.

5. Stay hydrated.

Studies show a close relationship between water intake and headache pain. Help keep migraines at bay by drinking the current daily fluid recommendation: 15.5 cups for men and 11.5 cups for women (About 20 percent of this fluid intake comes from food.) Keeping a water bottle handy helps ensure your next sip is never out of reach.

6. Find a dark, quiet space.

When you’re in the throes of a migraine, you may experience sensitivity to light and sound, so resting in a quiet, dark room can help. When the curtains aren’t cutting it, an IMAK Eye Pillow can help block out light. “Reducing sensory stimulation can be soothing,” says Dr. Natbony.

7. Opt for some cold therapy.

Tell your pain to chill with some temperature therapy. Research suggests an ice pack placed on the neck or forehead may help reduce discomfort. You can also try a cooling gel, such as BeKOOOL migraine temple roll-on gel.

8. Find a migraine medicine that works for you.

A number of over-the-counter and prescription options are available to help you manage the pain. Make sure to speak with your health care provider first before taking any medication or supplement.

Migraine medications to help ease the pain

Over-the-counter migraine medications, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, can help to lessen discomfort, says Dr. Cooper. One to try: Excedrin Migraine caplets for migraine pain relief, which contains acetaminophen and aspirin, as well as caffeine. While caffeine can support headache relief, avoid using it as acute treatment for more than two days per week if you are a migraine sufferer. If caffeine is taken three or more days per week, it can lead to the development of medication-overuse headaches. Make sure to speak with your health care provider first before taking any medication or supplement.

If you’re experiencing prolonged or frequent migraine symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your primary care doctor, who can then refer you to a neurologist or headache specialist if needed. “Sometimes you need a combination approach,” says Dr. Natbony. Your doctor may recommend changing the dosage of your over-the-counter medication, prescribe a prescription migraine medication (a number of options exist) and/or recommend lifestyle changes and stress-easing techniques.

*This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.