By Faye M Smith
Finding migraine cures that work for you is a huge relief. The migraine has plagued sufferers and puzzled doctors for centuries. And it’s the third most common condition in the world. For one in five women—and one in 15 men—the thundering, one-sided headache intensified by the slightest movement, crippling nausea and sometimes vomiting, the acute sensitivity to light, sound, smells and/or touch, are all too familiar.
But a migraine is not just a bad headache. Doctors now recognize it as a complex neurological condition with several stages. “New research techniques, plus the advent of sensitive MRI scans, are leading to a greater understanding of underlying mechanisms,” explains Professor Peter Goadsby, a leading migraine expert.
And the good news is, there are treatments out there that can help ease your symptoms. It could be as simple as changing up your diet or lacing up your walking shoes more often (see our guide to the best walking shoes for recommendations). Or, for those who suffer from severe migraines, there are now medical treatments that could offer you some relief. Whether you're experiencing attacks just once a year, or much more regularly, here’s how to lessen the pain…
The common causes of migraines
The best plan of attack when it comes to migraines is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Keeping a migraine journal can be a great way to see what may be causing yours.
Here are the most common causes of a migraine, according to the experts:
- Hormones—thought to be triggered by the fall in estrogen before menstruation, your migraines might also be exacerbated by prostaglandins, fatty acids involved in pain. Unfortunately, menopause doesn’t always bring relief.
- Diet—ham is a common trigger because it contains tyramine, as well as preservatives (nitrates or nitrites), which appear to increase blood flow to the brain. Tyramine is found in foods that have been preserved, pickled, smoked, marinated or fermented.
- Changes in mood—anger can cause the muscles to tense up. You also tend to take shorter breaths when you are anxious—the less oxygen you take in, the more blood vessels constrict, causing head pain.
- Bad posture—tension in your upper back, neck and shoulders can lead to a headache and migraine. Learn how to fix your posture with our handy guide.
- The weather—pressure fluctuations that cause weather changes are thought to trigger chemical changes in the brain, irritating the nerves. Hot weather is often a trigger. A study by Tokai University School of Medicine found changing weather triggered pain in migraine sufferers.
- Having sex—“some people experience a sudden ‘thunderclap’ headache at orgasm that lasts up to half an hour,” explains migraine specialist Professor Anne Macgregor.
- The weekend—oversleeping for just half an hour can be enough to trigger problems, particularly in coffee addicts. “Because caffeine directly affects the blood vessels in the brain, withdrawal or reduction at the weekends—exacerbated by low blood sugar due to a later breakfast—can cause pain,” says Professor Macgregor.
- Your hairstyle—ponytail hairstyles, plaits, Alice bands and tight hats can cause issues if the hair is pulled back tightly, straining the connective tissue in your scalp.
- Genetics—“around half of all people who experience migraines will be related to someone who also has the condition,” says Phil Day, Superintendent Pharmacist at Pharmacy2U.
The common symptoms of migraines
Migraine symptoms can last for varying degrees—anything from four hours to three days. Many people get warning symptoms, such as food cravings or mood and behavior changes, 24 hours beforehand.
Experiences can vary, but the most common migraine symptoms include:
- Blind spots, flashing lights, numbness, and feeling dizzy—these are temporary symptoms that will often “warn” people of an impending migraine. “They can last anywhere from five minutes to up to an hour,” says Day.
- Throbbing pains—usually on one side of the head.
- Nausea—you may feel sick or actually vomit.
- Sensitivity to light and sound—which is so painful you aren’t able to carry on with your daily activities.
- Post-menopause, you may experience other symptoms—these include dizziness, fatigue, sleep problems, sensitive skin and mood changes.
How to cure a migraine
When it comes to severe migraines, preventative steps can often help lessen symptoms, as well as halt an attack altogether. Here’s what the experts recommend...
1. Take pain relief
Over-the-counter painkillers or anti-inflammatories, anti-sickness medicines and low-dose aspirin, either alone or in combination according to pharmacist advice can work. But you have to be quick when relying on these medicines. There’s a window of opportunity during a migraine attack before the stomach stops working properly (‘gastric stasis’) when any drugs you take won’t be absorbed properly.
“Taking aspirin or ibuprofen with a sweet, fizzy drink, like regular cola, can help absorption and boost blood-sugar levels to aid recovery,” says Professor MacGregor. If these don’t help, prescribed treatments range from beta-blockers (to prevent blood vessels in the head from dilating) to antidepressants (which keep the brain chemistry under control), to triptans designed to increase the levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter found naturally in the brain).
“If nausea makes it impossible to take tablets, talk to your medical provider about alternative routes,” advises Professor MacGregor. “These include nasal sprays, suppositories and sumatriptan through an injectable device.”
2. Visualise the pain away
Relaxation techniques are very effective for dealing with pain, explains wellness consultant Sloan Sheridan-Williams. They can be a good solution if you want to manage pain without popping pills.
“Simply lie still, breathe in and out slowly, and relax various muscle groups, starting from the toes and working all the way up to the head,” says Sheridan-Williams. “Visualise the pain as a color or number and change the color from dark blacks and greys to bright whites and yellows. Or count down from 10 to one over a few minutes.”
3. Go to sleep
Heading somewhere quiet and dark could help when a migraine strikes. “During a migraine attack, many people find that lying down and resting their eyes is the most beneficial thing they can do,” says Sonia Khan, senior pharmacist at Medicine Direct.
“Try to rest in a dark room while the migraine attack occurs. This stops you from completing any tasks or performing any physical activity, which you will likely find strenuous if you have a severe migraine. It also removes any harsh lighting you may have recently encountered. So turn the lights off, draw the curtains and close your eyes. Similarly, try resting in a quiet environment to avoid noise.”
Adopting a regular sleep pattern is also another way to prevent a migraine from happening. “Sleep is vital for our overall health but is especially important for migraine sufferers,” says clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer. “The research examined by University of L'Aquila et al is still evolving as to why poor sleep affects migraine sufferers so acutely but it may be down to changes in the central nervous system and to brain neurotransmitter regulation.”
4. Try a new jab
Medication for migraines varies depending on where you are in the world. In the UK, ground-breaking treatment, in the form of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors, which block the protein thought to cause inflammation and pain associated with migraine, has been approved by the NHS.
"It’s a real breakthrough," says Gemma Jolly, information and support services manager at The Migraine Trust. "CGRPs are the first migraine-specific preventive treatments that have been approved for use on the NHS." CGRP treatment is also approved to be used in the US, so speak to your medical provider if you think this could be a good treatment option for you.
5. Use Botox
Normally thought of as a way to minimize wrinkles in treatments like baby botox, Botox injections into the scalp have been offered on the NHS since 2011 to migraine sufferers. “I think of all the things that I’ve come across in the past 20 years for prevention, these have been the most beneficial,” says headache specialist Dr Andrew Dowson. “We normally give two injections three months apart.”
It's thought it may block chemicals that play a part in stimulating the pain of migraine. Botox injections are available from your medical provider, or on the NHS in the UK to those who have headaches on 15 or more days a month, of which eight of those days are migraines.
6. Drink herbal tea
Tea can help with overall hydration, which can prevent or relieve pain. Plus, depending on the type of tea, there are other benefits for your health and wellbeing, too. “Peppermint oil is used as an essential oil for headache or migraine,” says Sawyer. “You could put peppermint oil or fresh peppermint in a cup of hot water and inhale the steam and also drink the liquid. A study by the Shahrekord University of Medical Sciences found a drop of diluted peppermint oil dripped into the nose was effective in decreasing the intensity of headaches caused by migraine in about 42% of participants who tried it.”
And that’s not all. “Also, a study published by the Zanjan University of Medical Sciences found drinking a half teaspoon of powdered ginger in warm water helped reduce migraine severity,” says Sawyer.
7. Eat regularly
One way to cure migraine attacks in the future is to eat regularly, and snack before bed, especially if you ate early in the evening. It’s all to help keep blood sugar levels balanced. “It’s important not to miss meals either,” adds Sawyer.
“Think about the balance between the food groups and try to reduce refined carbohydrates like sugar, cakes, biscuits, and fizzy drinks. Focus on low glycaemic carbs, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, and starchy vegetables. You can never eat too many vegetables, whatever the variety! Snacks of nuts, seeds, cherries, olives, chopped veggies and hummus are great choices," Sawyer suggests.
8. Exercise little and often
“Go gently at the start, eat and drink to maintain blood glucose levels and hydration and stretch out gently afterward,” says Sawyer. “But do remember, that just because you’ve done a half-hour walk, you don’t need to take on board lots of additional food.”
9. Stay calm
Knowing how to reduce stress, and keeping yourself as relaxed as possible can help to both prevent an attack, and how long an attack may last.
“Don’t upset yourself,” says Sawyer. “Avoid reading, watching, or listening to depressing or anxiety-provoking news stories which can often circulate widely on social media. Find a trusted news source and only update yourself once a day—preferably not just before going to bed. It is very easy to get overly upset and that will raise stress hormone levels which in turn can make migraine attacks more likely.
Try sleep-guided meditation if you struggle to settle in the evenings or suffer from sleep anxiety. The mindful practice is beneficial in helping relax the body and mind, and will prepare you for a restful slumber.
10. Ditch the chewing gum
“Those who use gum regularly because they’re trying to lose weight or give up smoking often find that they get more headaches,” says Sheridan-Williams. “The prolonged chewing action triggers the head pain.” In fact, research by the Azienda Ospedaliero-Universitaria di Parma in Italy found that subjects who reduced chewing on gum showed a marked reduction in headaches and migraines.
And if you grind your teeth at night, wearing a mouthguard could help. “Grinding teeth can trigger migraines in some people,” adds Dr Fayyaz Ahmed, consultant neurologist at Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and a trustee of The Migraine Trust. A guard worn at night can help as it stops the grinding. You can get one made to measure at the dentist—usually at a cost—or they can be bought over the counter at a pharmacy.
11. Eat more nutrient-rich foods
“Tactics you could try to lessen the risk of a migraine include eating plenty of foods that are rich in magnesium, such as nuts and dark green vegetables,” says Khan. “Another preventative nutrient you should get plenty of is vitamin B12, which you can find in common foods like fish, chicken and milk.” Research by Humboldt University of Berlin showed that 400mg of B12 a day helped reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines for some people.
The most common foods to include in your diet to help reduce migraine pain include:
- Pineapple—“fresh pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain which has often been cited as natural pain relief,” says Sawyer. “Bromelain has anti-inflammatory properties and has long been used to calm the pain of migraine.”
- Watermelon—“watermelon is actually 92% water,” says Sawyer. “Getting plenty of water—both by drinking it and by consuming foods that contain lots of water—will help you stay hydrated. Getting enough fluids is important for all aspects of health, including migraine.”
- Mushrooms—“adding foods that are high in riboflavin (vitamin B2) such as mushrooms, quinoa, nuts, and eggs help," says Sawyer.
- Broccoli—changes in hormone levels can lead to headaches, especially for women with menstrual migraine or headaches. “Women who have this type of migraine would benefit from increasing their intake of cruciferous vegetables, because of their effects on estrogen,” says Sawyer. “Cruciferous vegetables contain hormonally active compounds called phytoestrogens, which have a balancing effect on estrogen, naturally filling up estrogen-receptor sites around the body and hopefully preventing migraine attacks.”
w&h thanks Professor Peter Goadsby; Professor Anne Macgregor; superintendent pharmacist Phil Day; wellness consultant Sloan Sheridan-Williams; senior pharmacist Sonia Khan; Dr Andrew Dowson; Gemma Jolly, information and support services manager at The Migraine Trust; Dr Fayyaz Ahmed and clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer for their time and expertise.
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