If you have migraines or a family history of migraines, a doctor trained in treating headaches (neurologist) will likely diagnose migraines based on your medical history, symptoms, and a physical and neurological examination.
If your condition is unusual, complex or suddenly becomes severe, tests to rule out other causes for your pain might include:
- MRI. An MRI scan uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of the brain and blood vessels. MRI scans help doctors diagnose tumors, strokes, bleeding in the brain, infections, and other brain and nervous system (neurological) conditions.
- CT scan. A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to create detailed cross-sectional images of the brain. This helps doctors diagnose tumors, infections, brain damage, bleeding in the brain and other possible medical problems that may be causing headaches.
Migraine treatment is aimed at stopping symptoms and preventing future attacks.
Many medications have been designed to treat migraines. Medications used to combat migraines fall into two broad categories:
- Pain-relieving medications. Also known as acute or abortive treatment, these types of drugs are taken during migraine attacks and are designed to stop symptoms.
- Preventive medications. These types of drugs are taken regularly, often daily, to reduce the severity or frequency of migraines.
Your treatment choices depend on the frequency and severity of your headaches, whether you have nausea and vomiting with your headaches, how disabling your headaches are, and other medical conditions you have.
Medications for relief
Medications used to relieve migraine pain work best when taken at the first sign of an oncoming migraine — as soon as signs and symptoms of a migraine begin. Medications that can be used to treat it include:
Pain relievers. These over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers include aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others). When taken too long, these might cause medication-overuse headaches, and possibly ulcers and bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract.
Migraine relief medications that combine caffeine, aspirin and acetaminophen (Excedrin Migraine) may be helpful, but usually only against mild migraine pain.
- Triptans. These are prescription drugs such as sumatriptan (Imitrex, Tosymra) and rizatriptan (Maxalt) are prescription drugs used for migraine because they block pain pathways in the brain. Taken as pills, shots or nasal sprays, they can relieve many symptoms of migraine. They might not be safe for those at risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Dihydroergotamines (D.H.E. 45, Migranal). Available as a nasal spray or injection, these are most effective when taken shortly after the start of migraine symptoms for migraines that tend to last longer than 24 hours. Side effects can include worsening of migraine-related vomiting and nausea.
People with coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, or kidney or liver disease should avoid dihydrogergotamines.
- Lasmiditan (Reyvow). This new oral tablet is approved for the treatment of migraine with or without aura. In drug trials, lasmiditan significantly improved pain as well as nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Lasmiditan can have a sedative effect and cause dizziness, so people taking it are advised not to drive or operate machinery for at least eight hours. Lasmiditan also shouldn't be taken with alcohol or other drugs that depress the central nervous system.
- Ubrogepant (Ubrelvy). This oral calcitonin gene-related peptide receptor antagonist is approved for the treatment of acute migraine with or without aura in adults. It's the first drug of this type approved for migraine treatment. In drug trials, ubrogepant was more effective than placebo in relieving pain and other migraine symptoms such as nausea and sensitivity to light and sound two hours after taking it. Common side effects include dry mouth, nausea and excessive sleepiness. Ubrogepant should not be taken with strong CYP3A4 inhibitor drugs.
- Opioid medications. People who have migraines who can't take other migraine medications, narcotic opioid medications, especially those that contain codeine, might help. Because they can be highly addictive, these are usually used only if no other treatments are effective.
- Anti-nausea drugs. These can help if your migraine with aura is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Anti-nausea drugs include chlorpromazine, metoclopramide (Reglan) or prochlorperazine (Compro). These are usually taken with pain medications.
Medications can help prevent frequent migraines. Your doctor might recommend preventive medications if you have frequent, long-lasting or severe headaches that don't respond well to treatment.
Preventive medication is aimed at reducing how often you get a migraine how severe the attacks are and how long they last. Options include:
- Blood pressure-lowering medications. These include beta blockers such as propranolol (Inderal, Innopran XL, others) and metoprolol tartrate (Lopressor). Calcium channel blockers such as verapamil (Tarka, Verelan) can be helpful in preventing migraines with aura.
- Antidepressants. A tricyclic antidepressant (amitriptyline) can prevent migraines. Because of the side effects of amitriptyline, such as sleepiness and weight gain, other antidepressants might be prescribed instead.
- Anti-seizure drugs. Valproate and topiramate (Topamax) might help you have less frequent migraines, but can cause side effects such as dizziness, weight changes, nausea and more.
- Botox injections. Injections of onabotulinumtoxinA (Botox) about every 12 weeks help prevent migraines in some adults.
- Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) monoclonal antibodies. Erenumab-aooe (Aimovig), fremanezumab-vfrm (Ajovy) and galcanezumab-gnlm (Emgality) are newer drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat migraines. They're given monthly by injection. The most common side effect is a reaction at the injection site.
Lifestyle and home remedies
When symptoms of migraine start, try heading to a quiet, darkened room. Close your eyes and rest or take a nap. Place a cool cloth or ice pack wrapped in a towel or cloth on your forehead or at the back of your neck.
Other practices that might soothe migraine with aura pain include:
- Try relaxation techniques. Biofeedback and other forms of relaxation training teach you ways to deal with stressful situations, which might help reduce the number of migraines you have.
- Develop a sleeping and eating routine. Don't sleep too much or too little. Set and follow a consistent sleep and wake schedule daily. Try to eat meals at the same time every day.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated, particularly with water, might help.
- Keep a headache diary. Continue recording in your headache diary even after you see your doctor. It will help you learn more about what triggers your migraines and what treatment is most effective.
Exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise reduces tension and can help prevent a migraine. If your doctor agrees, choose aerobic activity you enjoy, such as walking, swimming and cycling. Warm up slowly, however, because sudden, intense exercise can cause headaches.
Regular exercise can also help you lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight, and obesity is thought to be a factor in migraines.
Nontraditional therapies might help with chronic migraine pain.
- Acupuncture. Clinical trials have found that acupuncture may be helpful for headache pain. In this treatment, a practitioner inserts many thin, disposable needles into several areas of your skin at defined points.
- Biofeedback. Biofeedback appears to be effective in relieving migraine pain. This relaxation technique uses special equipment to teach you how to monitor and control certain physical responses related to stress, such as muscle tension.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy may benefit some people with migraines. This type of psychotherapy teaches you how behaviors and thoughts affect how you perceive pain.
- Herbs, vitamins and minerals. There is some evidence that the herbs feverfew and butterbur might prevent migraines or reduce their severity, though study results are mixed. Butterbur isn't recommended because of safety concerns.
A high dose of riboflavin (vitamin B-2) may also prevent migraines or reduce the frequency of headaches. Coenzyme Q10 supplements might decrease the frequency of migraines, but larger studies are needed.
Due to low magnesium levels in some people with migraines, magnesium supplements have been used to treat migraines, but with mixed results.
Ask your doctor if these treatments are right for you. Don't use feverfew, riboflavin or butterbur if you're pregnant or without first talking with your doctor.
Preparing for your appointment
You'll probably first see a primary care provider, who might then refer you to a doctor trained in evaluating and treating headaches (neurologist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
- Keep track of your symptoms. Keep a headache diary by writing a description of each incident of visual disturbances or unusual sensations, including when they occurred, how long they lasted and what triggered them. A headache diary can help your doctor diagnose your condition.
- Write down key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you take, including doses. It's particularly important to list all medications you've used to treat your headaches.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you receive.
For migraines, questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely triggering my migraines?
- Are there other possible causes for my migraine symptoms?
- What tests do I need?
- Are my migraines likely temporary or chronic?
- What is the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- What changes to my lifestyle or diet do you suggest I make?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there printed materials you can give me? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including:
- How often do your headaches occur?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- Does anyone else in your family have migraines?