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What Can You Do To Treat Migraines?

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health

Most of us get headaches from time to time, and we reach for any number of over-the-counter medications to ease the pain.

But migraines are different: They are debilitating, blinding, white-hot episodes of agony that can leave you in bed and out of commission for days. About 1 in 4 U.S. households include someone suffering from migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. And some experience chronic episodes, with at least 15 migraine episodes per month.

Indeed, this is more than a headache: Migraine is a prevalent neurological disease that affects 39 million men, women and children.

Dr. Jon Brillman, a neurologist with Lee Health, says lack of sleep, dehydration, sinus pressure and even stress can cause headaches.

“Most headaches are benign, and by that I mean they are tension headaches or just headaches related to muscle spasms around the scalp,” Dr. Brillman says.

But when the headache also causes nausea, vomiting, visual changes, or confusion, doctors say that’s when it’s become a migraine.

“Migraine is different than just plain tension headaches because migraine is a systemic disorder that has a lot more than just headaches,” said Dr. Brillman. While most headaches don’t cause serious internal problems, doctors say that’s not the case for migraines, which can be serious if they are frequent and disabling.

Migraines tend to run in families, and women are more susceptible.

“It’s a problem of circulation in the brain. The blood vessels either constrict or cause stroke-like symptoms, or stretch and cause headache,” Dr. Brillman said.

Besides the pain, migraine symptoms may include visual components such as spots, odd shapes and sparkling lights in your field of vision. Dr. Brillman also stresses the importance of noticing stroke-like symptoms such as numbness in extremities and loss of speech.  

Treatments and Coping

Doctors say patients should get a full medical evaluation if they have chronic migraines. Your doctor will work side by side with you to find the right medication and coping mechanisms and can also refer you to a neurologist.

Dr. Brillman says that certain medications can help, such as:

  • Prescriptions in the Triptan family treat migraines and will ease the blood vessels and take the pain away. These medications may include Imitrex and Relpax. For more information, visit the American Migraine Foundation and ask your doctor.
  • Anti-depressants, anti-hypertensives, anti-convulsants, and beta blockers may help stop attacks before they happen.
  • A new class of drugs called Calcitonin Gene-related peptide inhibitors or CGRP inhibitors are proving to be very effective. These can be given subcutaneously or orally.

Identify Your Triggers

Those who suffer from migraines sometimes hear about “triggers” — certain events and sensations that can cause a migraine. Some doctors advise migraine sufferers to keep a journal of their headaches as well as tracking their food intake and activity to try to determine a correlation.

The task is challenging because the triggers can vary from patient to patient.

Some common triggers include stress, dehydration, and sinus pressure. Some others:

  • Food with nitrates such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage
  • Alcohol, especially red wine
  • Certain types of cheeses such as blue, cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss
  • Very cold drinks and ice cream
  • Monosodium glutamate, which is a food flavoring found in many snack and fast foods

Stress Relief

It’s important to note that stress causes all kinds of health issues and may be a contributing factor in migraines. So migraine sufferers – and everyone else – should remember to take care of themselves when it comes to anxiety.

The practices below are simply to be used as complementary techniques to medication and a full migraine treatment plan from your doctor:

  • Try different forms of relaxation: Certain studies have shown that acupuncture and acupressure can help the pain that comes from migraines. Many experts also recommend regular yoga exercises and practicing Tai Chi, which can both help you relax more and actually have a better sense of when migraines are looming.
  • Get a massage: The evidence isn’t complete on massages relieving headache and migraine pain. But they are certainly good for lowering stress, which can always be a migraine trigger. The Migraine Relief Center says that the most favorable massage routine seems to be deep tissue work in between migraine attacks.
  • The American Migraine Foundation reports that biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, and abdominal breathing have been proven to reduce headaches and relieve pain. Biofeedback uses an instrument that gives you constant information on tension and other problems in your body so you can instantly recognize and fix them. Your doctor or physical therapist can give you more information about these techniques.
  • Many sufferers tout cold therapy – ice packs and cold packs wrapped around the neck while performing deep breathing exercises.

Full Treatment Available

  • Neurology

    Whether it's a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or a migraine, Lee Health's neuroscience experts provide specialized care for conditions that involve the brain, spinal cord, and the peripheral system.