Dealing With and Understanding Migraine Headaches

by Marla Walters on 30 May 2011 24 comments

I have suffered from migraines for about twenty years now. They are less frequent and of lower intensity than they were in my 30s, but I still dread them. Unfortunately, my daughter also occasionally has them. How much do they hurt? Well, I have gone through natural childbirth, surgery, wisdom tooth removal...I’d rate the migraines right below childbirth on the pain scale. They are severely painful. (See also: 9 Ways to Beat a Killer Headache)

I must preface any “home remedy advice” that I am giving here with this — if you are having severe headaches, you should see your doctor. Never assume you have figured out what you have from the internet. Make an appointment.

In fact, that was what I did after I had my first migraine. After a thorough examination, my doctor explained what a migraine was. My genes or environmental factors could be the cause, as could the trigeminal nerve (a pain pathway) and/or imbalances in serotonin levels. Interestingly, she also told me, “God isn’t punishing you.” That hadn’t occurred to me at all, but she explained that because the pain so severe, it is not uncommon for people to think that.

Migraine Triggers

People who suffer from migraines talk about their “triggers.” Triggers are factors that they have found set off their migraines. Before I could figure out what my triggers were, I needed medication so that I could cope. My doctor prescribed Cafergot tablets, which were only somewhat effective. Later, I also had a prescription for Imitrex tablets, which were more effective. Unfortunately, Imitrex left me listless and groggy, so I was pretty worthless long after the headache was gone; and it was expensive, so I knew I had to figure out my triggers.

Basically, figuring out your triggers entails retracing your steps prior to the migraine. To prevent migraines, you need to know what factors contributed to them. I found that it helped to keep a “migraine journal” recording when I had one, what I had to eat or drink, how my stress level leading up to the episode was, whether I was on my period, and how much sleep I had gotten. If you share this information with your doctor, they can help you to connect the dots. Here are some common triggers:

  • For women, your hormones. Fluctuations in estrogen can be a culprit.
  • Sleep patterns
  • MSG
  • Stress
  • Light. Bright or fluorescent lights can trigger migraines, as can “gray” weather.
  • Chocolate (how sad is that?)
  • Weather (changes in barometric pressure)
  • Tannins in red wine
  • Beer
  • Altering caffeine intake or excessive caffeine intake
  • Aspartame
  • Skipping meals or fasting
  • Stress
  • Loud noises
  • Unusual smells
  • Intense physical activity
  • Some medications

How to Avoid Common Migraine Triggers

Once you have figured out your triggers, you have won half the battle, because many migraine-inducing things can be eliminated. Here are some ways to handle your triggers.

Hormones

Use of the pill may help you to stay more regulated. Your doctor may have you experiment with different dosages.

Sleep

I have to get at least seven and a half hours of sleep each night, and it’s best if I get it at the same time. However, if I have to work during a night shift, I know that I need to compensate by sleeping in the next day. I have found that I can successfully adjust the sleep times, so long as I get that amount of sleep.

MSG

I found this one out the hard way. Early in my marriage, I used prepared foods (like noodle mixes, canned soups, etc.). Many, many prepared foods (even including snack foods like chips) contain MSG. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants also use it, so you have to learn to ask about it when you eat out. I think having an intolerance to MSG is sort of a mixed blessing, though — it lead to learning how to cook healthier meals, more economically.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Stress

Figure out how to control your stress levels. Try yoga, meditation, biofeedback, exercise, counseling, etc. There are many methods of controlling stress, and even if you don’t suffer from migraines, you should learn how to deal.

Light

This is a tough one, especially if you work in an office environment that uses fluorescent light bulbs. If you know this to be a trigger, perhaps your employer can accommodate your work area so that you have different lighting. Your physician can help you in this respect.

Chocolate

I have found that if I am really dying for chocolate, I can get away with it. I have to just have a small piece. If you make that piece a really high-quality type of chocolate, that helps, too.

Weather

There isn’t much you can do about this one. Sometimes, if the outside light seems to “glare,” sunglasses help.

Home Migraine Remedies

Unfortunately, sometimes I just blow it. I’m human. For me, I can usually get away with one thing — but if I combine a couple of triggers (say, I eat too much chocolate, and then I don’t get enough sleep) I may get a migraine. Here are ways to cope.

Ibuprofen

I have tried various types of pain relievers, but ibuprofen works best for me. At the first onset of an aura or tunnel vision, I pop two. Some report that Excedrin is helpful.

Get in a Dark Room

Unfortunately, that’s hard to do at work. If I feel a migraine coming on, and it feels like a bad one, I have to go home, at least until it passes. From experience, I know it isn’t just going to pass without employing more coping mechanisms. Close your curtains, turn out the lights, and lie down.

Coca-Cola

I don’t even like soda, but we always have Coke on hand. Caffeine is really helpful in alleviating migraine headache pain (“Cafergot” has caffeine in it). I slam down a can of it, sometimes using it to wash down the ibuprofen.

Coffee

Same principle as Coke, but the Coke settles my stomach more than coffee does.

Quiet

For me, having the TV on during a migraine just makes it worse.

Cold Compress

It feels great to have a really cold washcloth on my forehead or neck.

Vomiting

I saved the best for last. For me (and for my daughter) the migraines are usually accompanied with severe nausea. We have both found that if we just “let it go” (toss your cookies, puke, drive the porcelain bus), we feel better almost instantly. So quit fighting it.

After years of dealing with migraines, I have concluded that, painful as they are, their “blessing” is that they are a signal to employ a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, they aren’t so much a tap-on-the-shoulder reminder as a slam-you-in-the head reminder.

Again, if you are having severe headaches, see your doctor. That is the appropriate starting place. Secondly, figure out your triggers, and try to avoid them. Lastly, if you do have a migraine, some of the above suggestions just might help.

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Guest's picture
Olivia

Ah you poor kid.

After tracking the headaches, as you mentioned, I realized mine are hormone related, monthly or sometimes mid cycle. (Kind of makes you long for change of life.) I go the sumatriptan route (generic Imitrex) as it runs about $30 for 9 tabs. (I have a gem of a pharmacist who tracked this brand down for me.) That lasts me about 4 months. As you said, the real deal is insanely expensive. Another route is generic migraine strength meds (a pain killer combo with caffeine in it). For me this only works early on for lighter migraines.

There are other food triggers, but as you noted, yours are different. If I eat chocolate when I crave it, it's bad, but can tolerate it otherwise in small doses. Other triggers may include, dried beans, wheat, cheese, molds (like in blue cheese), the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, etc.), rice, pork, beef, vinegar. It helps to stay superhydrated. It may help to soak in a hot bath, but some find cold works for them.

There was a great book out years ago, believe it was called "The Migraine Book" with tons of helpful info in it. Hope this helps someone out there.

Marla Walters's picture

Olivia, thanks so much for your extremely helpful info. I appreciate your sharing this knowledge. I agree, I hope it helps someone out there.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm so glad you mentioned the nausea thing. I've started making myself throw up when I feel nauseous with a headache because, for whatever reason, it makes the migraine go away. I felt weird telling my doctor that. =p A little puking is well worth making my head feel better.

Marla Walters's picture

Guest, thanks for chiming in. It is weird, but for me, and for my daughter, it works. Pretty unpleasant cure, but when you get a severe migraine, you'll do whatever to relieve the pain. Hope the comments in this post are helpful to you.

Guest's picture
Slinky

I get pain and nausea from a different source, but I second this. Just give in to that and you feel so much better. As awful as it sounds, if you do it enough, you get pretty good at it, and it's not so bad then.

Guest's picture

Hi Marla

Although I do not suffer migraines, I once read that migraines and headaches could be linked to de-hydration & that increasing water intake can reduce occurences.

Whether drinking more as the symptoms come on will work to reduce a migraine severity - that is something to try.

I hope that helps readers - it is worth experimenting with a natural remedy as simple as drinking more water :)

Best wishes

Paul

Marla Walters's picture

Paul, thank you so much for writing. I will defininitely try drinking more water. Some days, I am good about it, and some days, I'm not. Talk about good motivation - if I could avoid a migraine just by increasing my water intake, that'd be so wonderful! Thank you for the tip! Mahalo!

Guest's picture
Guest

A correction about the chocolate - there's been lots of anecdotal evidence and a couple studies that have shown chocolate is not a trigger, but the craving for chocolate (and other carbs) is a symptom of an impending migraine. I always thought I was weird because I wanted chocolate-chip cookies and sharp cheddar cheese (both supposedly triggers) when I *had* a migraine - turns out that was a symptom! One good site: http://migraine.com/migraine-symptoms/food-cravings/

I do, however, avoid having wine with dinner when it's almost "that time" because I've found a hangover headache will convert to a migraine pretty quickly then. That and getting up at the same time (within an hour) every single day, weekends and vacations included, has cut the number of migraines I get in half.

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, guest, and thanks for more info (including the website link). That is so interesting about the cravings being a signal! Fortunately, wine isn't one of my triggers (bad enough to have to give up Doritos and other snacks). I totally agree with you on the sleep patterns. Cannot stress that one, enough. Even on weekends and vacations, sticking with the sleep patterns really helps. Thanks again for writing!

Guest's picture
Agatha

Hi Marla,

I have just suffered migraine a few days back and as I recall, I have had two already. I usually get once every year. It used to be stress related and now it has been my sleeping pattern.

I also did not realize that chocolate and MSG can both trigger migraine. I really appreciate. Thanks!

Marla Walters's picture

Agatha, my sympathies. As mentioned above, try to keep to a sleeping pattern. If they increase, call your doctor to get help. You are not alone! Best, M.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've been battling migraines for years - bad in my teens, bad when pregnant, and very bad in menopause (I'm now 52). In January, I starting taking a low-dose aspirin every day, and I quit drinking coffee.

NO MIGRAINE since then. Four months headache free.

Give it a try - it's cheap (compared to the 3 or 4 Axert I was taking every month at $20 each).

Good luck!
Sue

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Sue! Thanks for writing. I am very, very intrigued about the low-dosage aspirins and stopping coffee. You must be so happy to be headache-free. I am happy for you! I tried quitting coffee once (when pregnant) and omigod, the withdrawals. Would love to hear how you did it (i.e., gradual, cold-turkey, etc.). I've cut back but have not had the courage to go all the way to decaf. Good for you!

Guest's picture
SarahB

Thanks for writing this post. I've been getting migraines since I was 7-8 yrs old and am now almost 30. I currently use generic Imitrex, which helps most of the time. Unfortunately, I get between 4-9 a month, it used to be 6-9 per month before my doctor tried a few different prescriptions. Unfortunately, that hasn't worked in the long term and I developed tachycardia and had to go off one of the prescriptions that was decreasing the amount of migraines. I was sent home sick from work twice this month with bad migraines. Thankfully, my bosses are very understanding. I've been trying to figure out more possible triggers that I might have. There were a few triggers on the list that I didn't know about. I'm hoping keeping an eye out for them will help.

Marla Walters's picture

Oh, SarahHB. My heart goes out to you. I am so glad you have understanding bosses. I hope you have been keeping a migraine journal. There were several intriguing reader suggestions in this post. I truly hope that you soon find some relief. HANG IN THERE. :-) M.

Guest's picture
Jane

my migraines started when i took the pill. it was along time before i discovered other triggers. cheese, chocolate, citrus fruits, strawberries, in fact any berry fruit, bananas, and pork, malt is also a trigger for some. tinned salmon and mushrooms were my brothers triggers. however when i started having B12 injections because of a deficiency many of the triggers no longer caused migraine,
cheese, chocolate and strawberries are the culprits now. the menopause hasn't made any difference at all. J

Guest's picture
amy

in some people (myself included) caffeine can make migraines way worse! I also take feverfew before bed and I almost never get them anymore :)

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Amy, and thank you for writing. Bet you figured our the caffeine thing the hard way. I just looked up Feverfew and for the benefit of other readers will put the definition here: "Feverfew: leaves and flowers - medicinal herb used as an aspirin substitute for chills, colds, fever, inflammation, and migraine and sinus headache." (Saunders Pharmaceutical Word Book.) Thank you!

Guest's picture

I started getting migraines when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Like many, I discovered my trigger foods: fermented foods, MSG, dairy, processed meats, pickled foods, and many food additives. I also thought that I had hormone-related migraines as I got older. I avoided the trigger foods the best I could, quad-cycled my birth control pills, and medicated when the migraines came.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I tried an experiment. I completely modified my diet, according to recommendations by Dr. Joel Fuhrman in his book Eat to Live. Now, I eat a plant-based diet (fruits, veggies, beans, nuts/seeds, whole grains, and starchy veg) with no dairy, refined carbs, or added salt. I still eat a very small amount of meat on occasion. The results have been remarkable - completely headache free for 2 years. And I'm not alone either. In his 20 year practice, Dr. Fuhrman has seen a 90% recovery rate for his patients after 3 months of eating this way. I know I sound like an advertisement, but I am simply so happy to be living without debilitating pain and medications that leave me numb and foggy.

If you're even slightly curious, I highly recommend reading the book and giving it a try. What do you have to lose? (Hint: nothing but your headaches.)

Guest's picture
Olivia

Outdoorgrrl,
How do you handle the nightshade family? Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes? Or citrus? Do they bother you at all? I may try to get the book through interlibrary loan. Thanks for the suggestion.

Marla Walters's picture

Congratulations! That is a really strict-sounding diet, but being migraine-free for two years is wonderful. Thank you for writing and for adding your suggestions.

Guest's picture
Tosca

I had a bad bought of heat stroke as a child and unfortunately I can't handle heat without a horrible bought of "praying to the porcelain god" and just horrible light and sound sensitive headaches. Now that I'm an adult and much more careful about getting over heated this doesn't tend to happen. I am diligent for the most part about staying hydrated but If I slip and get moderately overheated and/or dehydrated I get migraines. It will be interesting to see if future research finds overheating/dehydration a common trigger for migraine, since a lot of the triggers for migraines can lead to dehydration i.e. chocolate and caffeine. I find that if I'm not properly hydrated that coffee can lead to a migraine. I also find that adding foods (milk - magnesium and potatoes or bananas - potassium) that have substances we tend to lose when over heated/dehydrated help when it's especially hot (I live in SoCal). I also keep a bottle of Pedialyte handy (a trick I learned from cooks in a restaurant I worked at in high school when the heat gets in to triple digits) helps both prevent and minimize symptoms.

Marla Walters's picture

Tosca, thank you for writing. Again, more mention about hydration. Since reader Paul added his tip about drinking more water, I have been more vigilant about it (and have not had a migraine).

Guest's picture
Tosca

Yep, I agree about the staying hydrated but you can also get too hydrated. I read an article (I'll include it when can locate it) about the importance of urine color (sorry I know that's gross) but it's a good way to not get under or over hydrated. This expert said to shoot for very light yellow, clear is not good but very yellow also bad. I really think more accurately it's about having the proper electrolytes once when hospitalized for heat exhaustion the thing that was the worst was the migraine, after about 20 minutes of IV fluid, I felt better than ever. The nurse said that it contained electrolytes like magnesium, sodium and potassium. Also, someone mentioned tension headaches and I found my tension headaches went away when I switched to a latex pillow with cotton lining gives the best support and has great air flow for those who get "hot head" when they sleep.

I do agree about the aspirin. I'm bad at taking supplements and pills regularly but low dose baby aspirin really helps when taken daily (important to take with a whole glass of room temp water as problems occur when aspirin comes in direct contact with the stomach lining). I could never give up coffee either but I'm careful to drink at least a 1/2 a cup of milk with it (magnesium), drink plenty of water and include a banana for breakfast. Since doing this coffee has ceased to be an issue for me, thankfully. :)