Migraines- ugh. Anyone else out there regularly deal with these joy- sucking neurological events? If so, you truly have my sympathy. Like so many migraine- experiencers, I have done hours of research, spent so many dollars, and tried so many therapies to rid myself of migraines. I have created a migraine checklist that is a compilation of the things I have tried that have helped, and a few that I haven’t tried but personally know people who have with good results.
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I should note that while I have had a measure of success with many remedies I have tried, I haven’t yet found any treatment that is 100% foolproof. When I feel one of these headaches coming on, I try to use my intuition to select a treatment, or multiple treatments. Sometimes I can nip it in the bud, sometimes it takes a few hours, and sometimes I just have to accept that today I am going to experience this and go to bed for the day.
I am lucky enough to have a prescription that works for me most of the time, but it does have side effects, and I am not always willing to trade discomforts. Other people I know can’t take prescription medication because it doesn’t work for their particular migraines, or they are pregnant, or have medication interactions. It’s good to have options that are alternatives to medication. So, most of these therapies are non- pharmaceutical, with a few exceptions.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and I cannot diagnose, prescribe or treat any conditions. Feel free to peruse my list, but do consult your physician and do your own research about treatment options- you use them at your own risk.
First things first
Before anything else, ask yourself these questions and address them if needed:
- How is my hydration? Do I need to drink?
- How are my electrolytes? Do I need salt? Potassium? Magnesium?
- Where is my blood sugar at? Do I need to eat?
- How is my stress level?
It seems basic, but it’s worth saying. Consider your hydration and electrolyte balance. This probably won’t treat your migraine by itself, but dehydration and low electrolytes will make your migraine worse. Make sure you’re getting enough clean water each day. At minimum, your weight in pounds divided by 2 is the number of ounces of water you should be drinking every day. As for electrolytes, you could definitely drink a sports drink or use an oral rehydration solution, but you can easily replenish your electrolytes with food, or by drinking an electrolyte drink called solé that you can make yourself. Beyond that, just try to make sure your needs as outlined in the bullet points are being met.
Migraine checklist: first line treatments
It’s also important to act as soon as you become aware of your migraine. Early treatment is key. If you have an aura before your migraine, start right then, or at the first sign of pain. Some first- line treatments include:
- Hot/ cold therapy- Depends on the person; some people get relief with hot packs on their heads/ necks. Others prefer cold packs, and still others swear by using a combination of heat and cold on various parts of their body. For me, heat on my neck with my heating pad is usually the most successful option (This is the one I have).
- Acupressure- stuff you can try on your own, like ear seeds (tiny seed on an adhesive patch that you put in a specific place on your ear depending on what you want to treat), wearable acupressure devices (like this one that you wear on the webbing between your thumb and index finger).
- Aromatherapy- as long as you’re not smell sensitive. If scents worsen your headache or cause nausea, skip this. Otherwise, peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus essential oils are great options to quell nausea, tension, and sinus pressure, which sometimes contribute to migraines.
- Breathwork- The breath is an under-appreciated yet powerful tool in your arsenal! Changing your breath can slightly alter the acid/ base balance in your blood. It also has the power to release tension you hold in your body, so don’t overlook this option. There are two main breath exercises I use when I have a headache.
- Balanced breath: this exercise is about as easy as it gets! Just breathe in to a slow count of four, and breathe out to a slow count of four. Continue as long as it feels good, but try for a minimum of a minute.
- Sitali Pranayama: this is a traditional cooling yoga breath. Roll your tongue into a ‘U’ shape, with the tip of your tongue just past your lips. Inhale deeply through your mouth, through the rolled tongue. Exhale through your nose. (If you can’t roll your tongue, just breathe over a flat tongue.) Repeat for 8-12 breaths, or up to 3 minutes at a time. I have tried this with good results, especially when paired with other approaches.
- Body scan- Some migraines are triggered by tension held in the body. Assess your musculoskeletal system, and focus on letting tension drain from your body. Check out this body scan script if you need ideas.
Consider taking vitamins and supplements that may help with migraines. Keep in mind that while there is anecdotal evidence for these options, the research is ongoing and in some cases inconclusive. I recommend that you do your own research and consider checking with your doctor or pharmacist before starting a new supplement, especially if you’re already taking medication. Here are the supplements that have helped me to some degree:
- B-vitamin complex
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
- CBD oil
- Natural caffeine
- Ginger/ Turmeric
This is by no means an exhaustive list. On the subject of nutrition, however, it’s worth pointing out that there are foods you may need to eliminate from your diet. Some people find that their migraines are triggered by wheat/ gluten, alcohol, chocolate, dairy, caffeine, or sugar. Many people experience a fewer migraines when they adhere to the ketogenic diet.
Know your triggers
Prevention is, of course, best. Knowing what things tend to trigger migraines (even if you can’t always pinpoint it) is an essential strategy. So, do what you can to understand your migraine triggers. These things might help:
- Keep a migraine journal
- Use a migraine tracking app (like Migraine Buddy)
- Chart your menstrual cycle (if applicable)
- Consider: Am I light sensitive? (Make sure you have good sunglasses to wear outside, and an eye mask to wear during a migraine.) Motion sensitive? Sound sensitive? (I have worn noise dampening earplugs with good results when I am in noisy crowds.) Weather sensitive? Smell sensitive?
- Are you getting enough good quality sleep? (If not, and especially if you have neck or shoulder pain, reevaluate the pillow you are sleeping on! There is no pillow that is perfect for everyone. Some people love memory foam contoured pillows, others love buckwheat filled pillows, etc. Find the one that feels best.)
It might be worth visiting your physician and getting lab tests done to rule out allergies, nutrient deficiencies, or an autoimmune condition. If you often have neck, shoulder, or back pain that precludes a migraine, it would definitely be a good idea to visit a chiropractor or physical therapist. Things like poor posture and pinched nerves are very treatable causes of headaches. When I went to my chiropractor, I got X-rays done that showed a congenital abnormality in my spine around my neck, and knowing that definitely affects what I do to prevent and treat my migraines.
If you can afford to get regular massages, or you have a friend or partner who is willing to work on your neck and shoulders consistently, this can help prevent tension from building up, which can sometimes trigger a migraine. Even if it doesn’t prevent every migraine, it’s a pretty pleasant form of self- care! I regularly use this neck and shoulder massager during the winter, which is migraine season for me.
Speaking of triggers… If your migraines are related to muscle tension at all, you should know about trigger point therapy. This therapy goes along with massage, but it is not so pleasant, at least not for me! This involves the masseuse putting firm pressure on your muscle knots until they release. Painful, but effective. I also have a trigger point device that I can use on myself.
If you’re willing to try some non- traditional forms of treatment, there are even more options available to you for treating migraines.
- Binaural beats- “A binaural beat is an illusion created by the brain when you listen to two tones with slightly different frequencies at the same time.”- Source: WebMD. Basically you listen to these tracks (often paired with music) through headphones so that each ear receives a slightly different frequency, and your brain perceives a third frequency that isn’t really being played, but is the result of your brain trying to incorporate the different frequencies into one unified frequency. This is called brain wave entrainment, and depending on the sound frequencies played, it induces different brain wave states. Brain waves in the delta range are associated with deep sleep, pain relief, cortisol reduction, and deep meditation. Migraine relief is not a sure thing, but it helps some people, some times. Research at least agrees that it can’t hurt, although you may want to steer clear if sound sensitivity is a thing for you during a migraine. Search “binaural beats for migraine” on YouTube or Spotify, and look for tracks that use low (delta) frequency, under 4 Hz. Read more about binaural beats for migraine here.
- Green light therapy– there is some research out there about using green LED light to alleviate migraine pain, and even decrease the frequency of migraine headaches (after months of use). I have not personally tried this, but it might be worth looking into.
- Biofeedback- This amazing therapy has been extensively studied and found to be very helpful for sufferers of both migraines and tension headaches, along with a host of other issues. This therapy teaches you to control some of your body’s functions that are normally beyond your control. Electrodes connected to your skin measure things like heart rate, breathing, muscle contraction, skin temperature, and even brain waves. Then you undergo training to learn to control those things. This training can take place in a therapist’s office, but there are some options becoming available for home practice as well. This is definitely worth looking into if you haven’t tried it already!
- EFT/ tapping- This is a highly studied modality based on Chinese medicine. (Seriously, there is tons of reputably published research. My child’s therapist even uses this with her patients.) Basically, you use your fingers to gently tap on specific areas on the body that are energy centers, while repeating certain phrases. This helps “dislodge” stuck emotions, and sends signals to the part of the brain that controls stress. The result is that negative emotions are neutralized, stress is reduced, and physical healing can begin. Read more about it here. Use the setup phrase “Even though I have this _______________, I deeply and completely accept myself”. You can fill in the blank generically with “migraine”, but it is more helpful to be specific, i.e. “shooting pain behind my eyes” or “vise around my temples” etc.
A little more extreme
These last few options are a little more extreme, and none of them are a silver bullet, but they might be worth researching and considering if they might offer you some relief:
- Daith piercing- this is an ear piercing that goes through the ear’s innermost cartilage fold. It is placed over an acupuncture point that is supposed to relieve headache pain. The research is very mixed about whether it is helpful or not. I personally have a daith piercing on each ear. My experience was that it was more painful than a regular earlobe piercing, and that it took nearly a year to be fully healed. During that time, I did experience fewer migraines. Now that they’re healed, I do think fiddling with them or changing out the earrings- anything that causes slight inflammation- helps slightly. That is just my opinion. The TLDR is a daith piercing might help, a little. I really like my piercings anyway, but it might not be worth it if you don’t want the look as well.
- Botox injections- I have not tried this, but I personally know people who swear by it. Basically, botox is injected into one of several muscle groups around the face, head, neck, or shoulders. Whatever your trigger area is that holds tension. This needs to be repeated about every 3 months, and it is not cheap. This treatment definitely isn’t for everyone, and it is only FDA-approved for those who experience migraines more than 15 days out of a month. It’s good to know what the options are, however.
- Acupuncture- Another one that I have not tried, but does help some who can handle dealing with needles. It is also based on Chinese medicine and meridians (energy pathways in the body). The American Migraine Foundation states “It’s not completely clear how acupuncture eases pain or decreases migraine. The overarching belief is that it activates pathways in the brain that are responsible for turning pain off.”
This is really important, both when you are in the midst of a migraine, and when all is well! When you don’t have a migraine, try to note it. “Noticing what is not wrong” is one method of practicing mindfulness. Obviously, it is so much easier to identify what is going wrong. As human beings, we are hardwired to do so- it is an evolutionary survival mechanism. Find the thing that isn’t right, fix it, survive another day. It becomes less helpful in these modern times where our survival isn’t at stake, but those mental pathways remain. Now we’re stressed because of it! So we purposefully try to do the opposite. We identify the non-toothache, non-migraine, non-hunger, non-embarrassment, and this is a practice of mindfulness. It is also, as you might guess, a practice of gratitude.
When you do have a migraine, instead of panicking, try to bring that same quality of noticing and identifying. Note the location, quality, and movement of the pain. Be curious, and follow it. It is sometimes (though not always) possible to halt a headache just by paying attention to it and not fighting it. But if not, learning about where and how you feel your headache pain can help strengthen your intuition about how to treat it, or at least give clues about what triggered it.
Last but not least, a word about acceptance and expectations. This post is all about trying different things to find relief from migraine pain. I hope if you try some of the things on this list that they will help you. In fact, during the course of writing this article I had a migraine come on, and I hit it with half a dozen of the things I mention in the post. Luckily, my migraine abated without me needing to take my prescription. I wish that for you, too. But here’s the thing: when we become too attached to an outcome, or we refuse to accept what IS, we create more suffering for ourselves. I’m not saying don’t try to relieve and prevent pain. Of course not. But try to approach whatever is happening at the moment with equanimity. Try not to attach negative meaning to your migraines. I promise that will help you see the situation with more clarity.
I wish you the best on your mindful migraine healing journey. <3