Migraines: Simple steps to head off the pain

Migraines cause pain as real as the pain of injuries — with one difference: Healthy habits and simple nonmedical remedies sometimes stop migraines before they start.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Medication is a proven way to both treat and prevent migraines. But medication is only part of the story. It's also important to take good care of yourself and understand how to cope with migraine pain when it strikes.

The same lifestyle choices that promote overall good health can also reduce the frequency and severity of your migraines.

Combining medication with behavioral measures and lifestyle can often be the most effective way to handle migraines.

Find a calm environment

At the first sign of a migraine, take a break and step away from whatever you're doing if possible.

  • Turn off the lights. Migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound. Relax in a dark, quiet room. Sleep if you can.
  • Try temperature therapy. Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck. Ice packs have a numbing effect, which may dull the sensation of pain. Hot packs and heating pads can relax tense muscles. Warm showers or baths may have a similar effect.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage. In small amounts, caffeine alone can relieve migraine pain in the early stages or enhance the pain-reducing effects of acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and aspirin.

    Be careful, however. Drinking too much caffeine too often can lead to withdrawal headaches later on. And having caffeine too late in the day may interfere with your sleep, which can also affect migraines.

Sleep well

Migraines may keep you from falling asleep or wake you up at night. Likewise, migraines are often triggered by a poor night's sleep.

Here are some tips to encourage sound sleep.

  • Establish regular sleep hours. Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day — even on weekends. If you nap during the day, keep it short. Naps longer than 20 to 30 minutes may interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Unwind at the end of the day. Anything that helps you relax can promote better sleep: listen to soothing music, soak in a warm bath or read a favorite book.

    But watch what you eat and drink before bedtime. Intense exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can interfere with sleep.

  • Minimize distractions. Save your bedroom for sleep and intimacy. Don't watch television or take work materials to bed. Close your bedroom door. Use a fan to muffle distracting noises.
  • Don't try so hard to sleep. The harder you try to sleep, the more awake you'll feel. If you can't fall asleep, read or do another quiet activity until you become drowsy.
  • Check your medications. Medications that contain caffeine or other stimulants — including some medications to treat migraines — may interfere with sleep.

Eat wisely

Your eating habits can influence your migraines. Consider the basics:

  • Be consistent. Eat at about the same time every day.
  • Don't skip meals. Fasting increases the risk of migraines.
  • Keep a food journal. Keeping track of the foods you eat and when you experience migraines can help identify potential food triggers.
  • Avoid foods that trigger migraines. If you suspect that a certain food — such as aged cheese, chocolate, caffeine or alcohol — is triggering your migraines, eliminate it from your diet to see what happens.

Exercise regularly

During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. These chemicals also help alleviate anxiety and depression — and these two conditions can make migraines worse.

Obesity also increases the risk of chronic headaches. Maintaining a healthy weight through exercise and diet can provide additional benefits in managing migraines.

If your doctor agrees, choose any exercise you enjoy. Walking, swimming and cycling are often good choices. Just remember to ease into exercise gradually, as very vigorous exercise may trigger migraines.

Manage stress

Stress and migraines often go hand in hand. You can't avoid daily stress, but you can keep it under control to help manage your migraines:

  • Simplify your life. Don't look for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day. Instead, find a way to leave some things out.
  • Manage your time wisely. Update your to-do list every day — both at work and at home. Delegate what you can, and divide large projects into manageable chunks.
  • Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, a few slow stretches or a quick walk may renew your energy for the task at hand.
  • Adjust your attitude. Stay positive. If you find yourself thinking, "This can't be done," switch gears. Think instead, "This will be tough. But I can make it work."
  • Enjoy yourself. Find time to do something you enjoy for at least 15 minutes every day. It could be playing a game, having coffee with a friend or pursuing a hobby. Doing something you enjoy is a natural way to combat stress.
  • Relax. Deep breathing from your diaphragm can help you relax. Focus on inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply for at least 10 minutes every day. It may also help to consciously relax your muscles, one group at a time. When you're done, sit quietly for a minute or two.

Keep a migraine diary

A diary may help you determine what triggers your migraines. Note when your migraines start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief.

Until recently, avoiding migraine triggers was considered the best advice. But new research suggests this may actually increase sensitivity to potential triggers.

A more useful approach may be to gradually expose yourself to triggers, and learn to cope with these headache triggers by using behavioral management techniques. These may include identifying and challenging negative thoughts, relaxation training, and stress reduction. More research is needed to understand if and how this approach is more effective in managing migraines.

Strive for balance

Living with migraines is a daily challenge. But making healthy lifestyle choices can help. Ask your friends and loved ones for support.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed, consider joining a support group or seeking counseling. Believe in your ability to take control of the pain.

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Sept. 22, 2020 See more In-depth

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