Published 25th July 2022

How to alleviate migraines

While some people think migraines are just a bad headache, they are often so much more. 

Migraines are a neurological condition, and severe headache is just one symptom. People with migraines also often experience nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraines are typically intense and can interfere with everyday life. 

For some people, over-the-counter painkillers are effective. However, other remedies — such as caffeine, a change in your environment, or aromatherapy — may also provide some relief.

You can also make changes in your daily life that may help prevent migraines in the long term.

Everyone experiences migraines differently, so the most effective treatments will vary from person to person. 

Migraine pain relief tips

When you have a migraine, it’s hard to do much of anything else. Here are eight things you can do next time you have a migraine that may provide some relief.

1. Medication

For some people, over-the-counter pain relievers can help with migraine pain. For example, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Mortin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin might help and are widely available at pharmacies. 

Evidence suggests that a combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine (Excedrin Migraine) may be more effective than any one of these medications taken alone or any combinations of two of these medications taken together. 

Talk to your healthcare provider to decide what the best option is for you.

If over-the-counter medications don’t work for you, or if you frequently get migraines, your doctor might suggest ditans, gepants, or triptans. 

These medications target specific sensory nerves that can help stop migraine symptoms. However, these medications are not appropriate for everyone, so talk to your healthcare provider to decide what option is best for you.

2. A change in environment

One of the more common symptoms of a migraine is sensitivity to light, sound, and some smells.

When experiencing a migraine, it may help to seek out a quiet, calm space with minimal light or strong smells.

Try keeping a diary of any specific sensory stimuli that tend to bring on your migraines. This way, you may be able to minimize the frequency of your migraines.

3. Stress reduction

People often report stress as a trigger for their migraines. If you can avoid unnecessary stress, it may help to manage the pain. 

You can also try breathing techniques, like box breathing, to help relieve stress and calm your mind.

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4. Massage therapy

Getting a massage may help reduce how often you get migraines. 

For example, In one 13-week, randomized controlled trial, researchers assigned 47 individuals with migraines to either a control group or a massage group.

The study found that the massage group showed improved migraine frequency throughout the intervention, as well as at a 3-week follow-up. 

As a bonus, they also found improvements in sleep quality, perceived stress, and cortisol.

However, evidence is still lacking on this topic and further research is needed. 

5. Temperature therapy

Using a cold or warm compress may help when you have a headache. 

For example, in one study of 55 participants with migraines, those who placed a frozen wrap on their neck experienced significantly less migraine pain than the control group after 30 minutes. 

However, it’s important to note that only a limited number of studies have looked at temperature therapy, specifically in migraines. 

You should always be careful when trying any temperature therapies, as exposure to high or low temperatures for too long can be dangerous.

6. Caffeine

Many over-the-counter options for migraines have added caffeine because it helps to boost the pain-relieving effects of medications.

If your medication doesn’t already include caffeine, a coffee may be a helpful pain-relief partner.

Be careful not to drink too much, though. Research suggests a link between chronic migraines and either too much caffeine or a sudden decrease in caffeine. 

People with migraines should aim to consume no more than 200 milligrams of caffeine daily. This is the equivalent of about two cups of coffee per day.

Keep in mind, this number may vary from person to person. 

7. Herbal therapy

Research looking at the effectiveness of herbs and spices is generally inconclusive. 

One review of studies suggested that butterbur, menthol, and chamomile show encouraging signs, but potential bias and an overall lack of evidence limit any firm conclusions.

In one meta-analysis, the researchers found that ginger helped people with migraines reduce nausea and vomiting, and they had significantly less pain after 2 hours.

8. Aromatherapy

While some odors can be triggering, certain smells may help dull the severity of migraines. 

In one study, 70% of participants with headaches reported feeling better after smelling lavender essential oil. However, close to 50% of participants responded to the placebo as well. 

While research with specific oils is limited, clinical trials have also shown encouraging results using:

Preventing migraines in the long term

While certain things may help relieve a migraine in the short term, there are steps you can take to try and prevent them.

Diet

The foods you eat may play a role in preventing migraines.

In a recent review, researchers observed that certain diets — including ketogenic, low-fat, modified Atkins, and those high in omega-3 and low in omega-6 fatty acids — may potentially benefit people with migraines. 

While encouraging, the researchers felt there was not enough quality evidence to draw any solid conclusions.

For some people, certain foods — like chocolate, alcohol, and cheese — may trigger migraines. A food diary may be a helpful tool for trying to figure out which food can be a trigger for migraine. 

Recent evidence suggests that migraines and gut health may also be linked. However, the role of the gut microbiome is complex, and the field is still young.

Much more research is needed to understand the relationship.

Long-term medications

If you frequently have migraines, your doctor may write you a prescription to help prevent them. 

Beta-blockers — such as metoprolol, propranolol, atenolol, and bisprolol — are widely used and studied medications for preventing migraines. 

Healthcare providers may also prescribe antidepressants, calcium channel blockers, or anti-seizure medications to prevent migraines. 

Talk to your healthcare provider to find the best option for your health needs.

Aerobic exercise

Regular physical activity can boost your health in many ways, and recent evidence suggests it might also benefit migraines. 

In a review of 10 studies, researchers concluded that some evidence suggests aerobic exercise can significantly reduce the pain, length, and frequency of a migraine. 

They did note, however, that the evidence ranged from low to moderate in quality.

Aerobic exercise refers to activities that boost your heart rate, like walking, jogging, swimming, or even housework.

While regular exercise seems to be generally beneficial for migraines, it can also act as a trigger in some situations. It’s important to find out what intensities and activities are best for you, specifically. 

Mindfulness therapy

Evidence suggests some mindfulness therapies may help if you frequently have migraines.

Recent studies have looked into the role of cognitive behavioral therapy in treating migraines. 

One meta-analysis of 11 studies showed that participants had fewer and less painful headaches after receiving cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Evidence also suggests a type of mindfulness therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy might also help reduce migraine pain. 

Hydration

Drinking enough water is vital for general health. It helps regulate your body’s temperature, protects sensitive tissues like your spinal cord, and helps remove bodily waste.

Evidence suggests that staying hydrated may also dull your migraines. 

One study of over 250 women found that those who drank more water each day experienced less migraine disability and pain, and showed reduced frequency and length of migraine attacks compared with those who drank less water. 

Summary

Migraine is a complex neurological condition with severe headaches as one of the many possible symptoms.

Thankfully, there are some things you can do to try to manage your pain. 

Everyone experiences migraines differently, and what works will vary from person to person.

Certain tricks like changing your environment, using a cold compress, and occasionally taking over-the-counter pain relievers might help.

If you frequently experience migraines, there are also some preventative steps you can take. Your doctor may suggest long-term medication.

Getting enough exercise, staying hydrated, and eating a balanced diet might also help.

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