Migraines can cause severe pain and discomfort, and it’s hard to find ways to manage symptoms during a migraine attack. While not all migraines can be prevented or completely stopped, it is possible to find relief with the right methods.
As a neurologist, Dr. Maria DeCastro specializes in helping patients manage migraines and find ways to reduce pain and prevent future attacks. In this blog, Dr. DeCastro explains what patients should know about migraines and shares tips for quickly relieving pain and discomfort.
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What is a migraine?
It’s a common misconception that migraines are just really painful headaches. They’re actually more than that—in addition to a severe headache, migraines often have full-body symptoms, which vary from person to person.
A migraine is divided into four phases, though some people don’t experience every phase.
- Prodrome (pre-headache or premonitory phase). Some people might experience warning symptoms up to two days before an attack. Prodrome symptoms can include everything from mood changes to fatigue, neck and shoulder stiffness, diarrhea or constipation, and even food cravings.
- Aura. Right before an attack, an aura can involve vision changes or other sensory problems. Your eyesight might be blurry, or you could see shimmering spots, zigzags, or light flashes. Auras can last into the attack phase.
- Migraine attack. During the attack phase, many patients experience a severe throbbing headache. The pain may be accompanied by a sensitivity to light and nausea and may last a few hours to a few days.
- Postdrome. Often described as a “migraine hangover,” this post-attack phase can involve fatigue, mood changes, difficulty concentrating, and a sensitivity to touch.
Sometimes, it’s possible to have a migraine without any head pain. These are called silent migraines and involve other common symptoms, like vision changes and nausea.
Common Migraine Triggers
There are lots of things that can set off an attack. Specific triggers vary from person to person, so part of managing attacks involves learning what triggers you.
Some common migraine triggers include:
- Lack of sleep
- Low blood sugar
- Hormonal changes (such as during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause)
- Sensory overload (because of bright lights, strong smells, or loud noises)
- Medication overuse (sometimes called a “rebound headache”)
Talk to a neurologist.
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How to Get Rid of a Migraine Quickly
There isn’t a cure for migraines, but there are a few ways to reduce symptoms quickly. It may take some trial and error to find out what methods work best for you.
If these tips aren’t enough to manage the pain, Dr. DeCastro recommends speaking with a neurologist to learn about other treatment options.
Tip #1. Change your environment
Fluorescent lights, construction noises, perfumes or colognes, and even car exhaust fumes can all cause sensory overload and trigger or worsen an attack. If you suspect something in your environment is causing a migraine, go to another room or head indoors if you’re outside.
Move to a calm, quiet, and dark room and lay down if you can. Don’t look at any phone or computer screens.
If you can’t move rooms, try dimming the lights, opening a window, or putting on noise-canceling headphones.
Tip #2. Take a pain reliever
Pain medications can help take the edge off when taken at the first sign of a headache. Be sure to follow the instructions on the bottle, and don’t take more than the recommended dose.
The most commonly recommended medications include:
- NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen). NSAIDs are a class of drugs that reduce inflammation and pain. They may cause nausea or stomach upset in some people, especially if taken on an empty stomach. Common NSAID brands include Motrin, Excedrin, Advil, and Aleve.
- Acetaminophen. Medicines containing acetaminophen can help manage discomfort without the gastrointestinal side effects of NSAIDs. Tylenol and Midol contain acetaminophen.
- Triptans. Triptans are a class of drugs that can help calm blood vessels and nerves in the brain to manage pain at the start of an attack. Triptans are only available through prescription, so talk to your doctor to learn more.
Note: Taking pain relievers very often carries the risk of medication overuse headaches. These “rebound headaches” can occur if you take pain medicines every day or almost every day in a month. If you find that the pain keeps returning after medication wears off or you’re relying on medication to get through most days, ask your doctor about other treatments.
Tip #3. Drink water
Dehydration is a common trigger for migraines. The American Migraine Foundation recommends always carrying a water bottle and drinking regularly throughout the day. Sipping water at the first sign of symptoms may make an attack less intense or even stop one altogether.
Tip #4. Use ice or heat
An ice pack may help relieve some pain, especially when used while lying down in a dark, quiet room. Wrap an ice pack in a towel and place it on your forehead or neck for no longer than about 15 minutes at a time. A cool cloth also works instead of ice.
Alternatively, you may find that a heating pad (used on a low setting on the back of your head and neck) or warm bath works better for relieving your discomfort. Be careful not to fall asleep while using a heating pad.
Tip #5. Try some caffeine
While caffeinated drinks can be a trigger for some, others may find that small doses of caffeine can actually help reduce symptoms. Researchers are still learning about the exact role caffeine plays in migraines, but studies have shown that small amounts can help treat headaches.
If caffeine isn’t a trigger for you, take some over-the-counter pain medicine that contains caffeine or drink a small cup of coffee. Stick to a maximum of 200mg of caffeine per day, which equals about 2 cups of coffee.
How to Prevent Migraines
There isn’t one guaranteed way to avoid migraines, but there are still steps you can take to help lower your chances of triggering one.
- Find ways to cope with and manage life stress
- Make sleep a priority
- Exercise regularly
- Don’t skip meals
- Don’t drink too much caffeine
- Keep track of your triggers and avoid them
Doctors also recommend keeping a migraine journal to keep track of attacks. Your migraine journal should include the dates and times of each attack, descriptions of your symptoms, your food and water intake, and if you were exposed to any potential triggers.
Final Tip: Talk to a Neurologist for Help
If you’re struggling with constant migraines that feel impossible to control, it’s time to talk to a neurologist like Dr. DeCastro. A neurologist can help you find ways to manage chronic migraines in a way that works best for you.
About Maria DeCastro, DO
Board-certified neurologist Dr. Maria DeCastro joined Florida Medical Clinic after working as a traveling physician at health care facilities around the country. Dr. DeCastro provides generalized neurological care with an interest in headache medicine and epilepsy.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Every patient is different, so talk with your doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you.