I have been a long time sufferer with migraines. I started getting them when I was fairly young, and they have continued and changed as I have gotten older. At my worst, I was getting 3-4 migraines a week, but now I have them mostly under control. I say "mostly" because I still get the occasional migraine like I did on Sunday night. That is what prompted me to write this post to share my "Migraine Survival Kit". Because I have dealt with hundreds of migraines over the years, I have developed a routine for dealing with them.
What is a migraine?
Before we talk about my survival kit, I think it is important to understand what a migraine is. A migraine is not just another word for a very bad headache, in fact, not all migraines present with a severe headache. There are several different kinds of migraines each with their own symptoms. There are the abdominal migraines with nausea and vomiting, menstrual migraines which happen around your period, ocular migraines which have visual disruptions, and so on. What sets migraines apart from other types of headaches is that they are caused by an imbalance in the brain. These imbalances may be a bit different for everyone which is why there are so many different types of migraines.
In order to be diagnosed with migraines, your doctor will ask about symptoms. Do you see an aura before your migraines? Are you sensitive to light, sound, and movement? Do you have a prodromal phase where you know that a migraine is coming? Do you get migraine hangovers? You may or may not experience all of these (and more) with your migraines, but they are all good signs that you are having a migraine and not a bad headache.
When we talk about migraines versus headaches, it is important to make the distinction. I have spoken with several people who claim to have migraines who get very angry if you suggest that it may be a sinus, tension, or trigger point headache. When I do this, I am not making light of your pain. Tension headaches, sinus headaches, and trigger point headaches can come with severe pain that can also be debilitating. So why is it so important to make the distinction? Because we treat them differently. So, how do I treat my migraines?
Know your triggers
The first thing to do when you begin to have migraines, is to find out your triggers. We do this by tracking when we have migraines and perhaps afterward writing down a description of the day. What did you eat? What was the weather like? Where did you go? Where are you in your cycle?
Some common migraine triggers include fluorescent light bulbs (The long tube kind, or the twisty energy efficient bulbs), pressure changes (do your migraines predict when there will be a storm?), hormones (Do you get migraines around the same time in your cycle?), food allergies, reactions to medications, not enough or poor quality of sleep, unpleasant odors (especially artificial fragrances. Do you have trouble around air fresheners and people who wear perfume/cologne?), and blue light (like the kind in your computer, television, and phone). These are some of the most common triggers, keeping a migraine diary will help you to discover yours. Once you know your triggers, try to avoid them if possible.
Boost your electrolytes
Boosting your electrolytes can actually help to counteract the imbalance in your brain that is causing your migraine. So, what is an electrolyte? Electrolytes are substances in our bodies that help to conduct electrical impulses, which we need to function. Some commonly known electrolytes include calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, and sodium. One of the most popular electrolyte drinks out there is, of course, Gatorade. The problem with Gatorade is that it is VERY high in sugar, so if you choose to drink Gatorade to combat your migraines, be prepared to spend a lot of time getting cavities filled (I can attest to this from personal experience... 14 cavities from the Gatorade). I like to drink an electrolyte enhanced water. You can find them in most stores, just make sure to look at the label to check out the sugar content before you buy it.
Caffeine and other drugs
Caffeine does not work for everyone. If you tend to consume a lot of caffeine to begin with, or caffeine is one of your triggers, this is not the treatment for you. For many of us caffeine can be a helpful treatment because it helps to reduce inflammation. It can also boost the effects of drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol, Excedrin, Midol) and ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin). I like to drink some caffeinated tea when I feel a migraine coming on, and will often combine it with an over the counter NSAID like the ones listed above. Many brands even have lines designed specifically to combat migraines. I do like to try natural approaches to health, but I also believe that depending on the circumstances, medications in moderation can be helpful.
For many chronic migraine sufferers, prescription medications are a good way to go. I was on a prescription to manage my migraines for a few years, and since going off, I have fewer migraines and they are less severe. If you have debilitating migraines, you may consider consulting with a neurologist. I recommend looking for someone who specializes in migraines if you can.
For some people aromatherapy is very helpful during a migraine, for others, any smell makes it worse. If you would like to try aromatherapy, some of the most effective herbs are lavender and peppermint. You can try diffusing the oils, or make an eye pillow using the herbs.
So, I already talked about drinking electrolyte water, in this section, I am referring to being in the water. When I have a migraine, I like to take a nice long shower, and in the past I would take baths as well. Something about being in the water relaxes me and makes me feel better when I have a migraine. I only have anecdotal evidence from my own life for this, and it is not one of the more common treatments, however because I find it helpful, I wanted to include it. If you find being in the water to be relaxing, give it a try. Add some essential oils to your bath or shower to boost the effectiveness.
When you have a tension or sinus headache, heat is generally pretty effective, with a migraine, you will want to try cold. The cold works to constrict your blood vessels, which reduces inflammation, and it is far more effective for the type of headache. I like to place a cold pack (wrapped in a washcloth, as an ice pack should never touch your bare skin) placed right at the base of my skull, and a cold eye pillow. I make eye pillows out of flannel filled with flax seeds and a combination of loose lavender buds and dried peppermint leaves. The eye pillow also adds just the right amount of pressure over your eyes to help relieve the pain, especially if you tend to have pain in and around your eye(s).
Soft music or silence
For many people, sound makes a migraine worse, and complete silence is the most helpful. I tend to like a little soft music. I find it to be distracting and calming. Try something soft and relaxing like spa or meditation music. If the music bothers you, try creating silence if you are able. If you can, ask that no one bother you, but I know that is not realistic for everyone.
For many migraine sufferers one symptom is sensitivity to light. For this reason, it may be a good idea to have a collection of candles ready to go in case you need to turn out all of the lights. When I have a migraine, candle light is generally enough to see by without making me feel worse. Another thing that I do is cover all of my lamps, as the lamps themselves are too bright when I have a migraine. If you are going to cover your lamps, make sure there is a lamp shade that the fabric can stretch over. Never put fabric on top of a bare bulb as this can create a fire hazard. You will want a fairly see through fabric like chiffon, or a scarf, otherwise it will block out the light entirely. The darker the color and the heavier the fabric, the more light will be blocked out.
Finally, one of the best things I know of for a migraine is to just sleep it off. For many migraine sufferers, this works well. This is a pretty easy one to combine with other treatments. I like to drink my electrolyte water or tea with a couple of migraine pills, turn off the lights, play some nice music, and fall asleep with my eye pillow covering my eyes. If you have trouble falling asleep with a migraine, you can try taking supplements to help you sleep. Talk to your doctor for suggestions.
Well, those are my methods of working through a migraine. As always, make sure to consult your doctor before self-medicating, and if you are having chronic migraines, seek advice from a doctor (specializing in migraines if possible). Do you suffer from migraines? What are your favorite techniques for relief? Leave your suggestions in the comments!
Meet the Author
Amanda Tarver, (LMT, CEIM, PES, RMT) is a massage therapist and birth worker in the Chicago area. She is dedicated to using a combination of bodywork and education to help people live a better quality of life.