More than 30 million Americans suffer from migraines — severe throbbing, pulsing headaches usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, that can last from four hours to several days. About 20% of people who get migraines also experience aura, which often means seeing flashing lights or shapes floating before your eyes, and can include tingling skin, ringing in the ears, changes in taste or smell and an overall strange feeling. “Everyone has a different frequency of migraines and different triggers,” says neurologist Stephen Silberstein, MD, Director of Thomas Jefferson University’s Jefferson Headache Center. “Some people can feel better simply using cold compresses or lying down, but for people who get them frequently — 4 or 5 times a month — the best approach is preventative. You want to stop them before they happen.”
Knowing and avoiding your triggers and following basic headache hygiene (go to sleep at the same time every night, drink plenty of water, get regular exercise and eat regular meals) can help prevent some migraines. It’s also crucial to be aware of your warning signs, which occur during the preliminary or “prodrome” phase of migraine. These may include exhaustion, food cravings, trouble concentrating or reading and sensitivity to light. “Whatever you use to treat your migraines, the earlier you treat it, the better,” says Dr. Silberstein.
Here are some ways to get rid of a migraine that might work for you:
Turn down the lights.
A sensitivity to light — known as photophobia — is one of the hallmark symptoms of migraines, so as soon as you feel one coming on, get to a room where you can turn off the lights and rest in quiet and darkness, says Dr. Silberstein.
Use a cold compress.
According to the National Headache Foundation, people with migraines often find relief from pressing an ice pack against their temple or forehead. You can use a regular ice pack from your freezer, or try ones that are specifically designed to wrap around the head to treat migraines.
Before a migraine, blood vessels tend to enlarge, but caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which means it causes them vessels to narrow, which can relieve some headache pain. In fact, many over-the-counter headache medicines contain caffeine, though you can ingest it however you most enjoy it, says Dr. Silberstein: “Caffeine is caffeine, whether it comes in a pill, a cup of coffee, or a can of cola,” he says. Silberstein points out that drinking a lot of caffeine in your daily life, however, can cause rebound headaches on days when you don’t have that cup of Joe early enough, so be mindful of how much you drink, and if caffeine works for you, save the double espressos for days when you really need it to fight that headache.
Explore meditation or yoga.
Though the evidence is mixed on whether meditation or yoga can truly dial down migraine pain, Dr. Silberstein points out that any practice that helps you control your breathing can be beneficial in migraine management. “When you take a deep breath, it acts as a vagus nerve stimulator, sending info to your brain to turn the pain down.”
Try a massage.
In one small study, migraine patients who massaged their temples with a menthol gel found some relief from headache pain. (You can try it using peppermint essential oils, which contain menthol). Another small study showed that lavender oil can have a similar effect. Dip a few drops on your fingers and massage small circles into your temples, or simply put the oil in a diffuser and see if the scent has any positive effect. If you want to apply topically, remember to never, ever apply undiluted essential oil to your skin — it can cause a very unpleasant reaction (for example, if your skin is then exposed to sunlight, it can create a burn). Dilute essential oils with a gentle neutral oil, like olive, coconut, or grapeseed.
Try switching to green light.
Exposure to light has long been known to trigger or exacerbate migraines, but researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered that green light is far less disturbing than other colors. (While blue and red light cause the largest magnitude of electrical signals to be generated in both the retina and the brain, green light caused the weakest signals.) Using a lamp designed to emit the most soothing light possible (such as the Allay Lamp) can help you get through your migraine without sitting in the dark for hours.
Talk to your doctor about migraine medication.
There are several FDA-approved migraine medicines you can buy over-the-counter at the drugstore, including Excedrin Migraine (which includes acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine) and Advil Migraine (which contains the NSAID ibuprofen). If those don’t do to the trick, talk to your doctor about triptans, a class of prescription drugs that you take as soon as you feel your migraine coming on. In addition to tablets, these are available in nasal sprays and rapid-relief injectables, which work best when you want quick pain relief, says Dr. Silberstein. There are several different kinds of triptans — your doctor can discuss the potential side effects, and which might be best for you.
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