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How to Stop a Migraine in Its Tracks

Triggers & Treatments for Migraine Pain

If you live with migraines, you might already be familiar with the pain and discomfort they cause. Migraines are a specific type of headache often identified by episodes of throbbing pain and, sometimes, nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light. Migraines can be mild or severe, and they occur more commonly in women than in men.

Some people with migraines find that migraine pain is much more intense than the discomfort from a tension headache. Often, migraine headaches typically follow a four-stage pattern:
  • Some migraine sufferers report noticing small changes in their body 1-2 days before the migraine begins including constipation, diarrhea, depression, irritability, food cravings, or a stiff neck. This is called the Prodrome Stage.
  • Sometimes migraine sufferers will receive a warning symptom such as a flash of light, visual disturbance, blind spot, bright spot, speech problem, or tingling in an arm or leg.  This warning is called the Aura Stage.  At other times, there is no pre-warning.
  • The Attack Stage comes next with the a painful, pulsing, and throbbing head along with nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, diarrhea, and the feelings of dizziness, light-headedness and fainting.   
  • The final phase, Postdrome, often leaves one feeling drained and washed out.  However, others report a feeling of mild euphoria after a migraine has passed.
What Causes Migraines?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes migraines or why some people have them while others don’t. For most people with migraines, a combination of genetic and environmental causes is likely to blame. According to the Mayo Clinic, 90 percent of people who have migraines have a family history of them.

For people prone to migraines, certain foods and medications, along with stress, irregular sleep patterns, exercise and even changes in the weather may trigger these throbbing, often one-sided headaches. Some women report that their migraines occur more often at or around the start of their menstrual cycle. Additional factors associated with migraines include
  • Hormonal changes in women related to birth control medication and hormone replacement therapies, menstrual cycle, pregnancy or menopause
  • High levels of anxiety, worry, shock, depression, mental fatigue, grief, life changes, vacations, work projects, and repressed emotions
  • Environmental sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, bright lights, glaring sunlight, computer screen usage, temperature and weather changes, smog, certain scents like perfume, paint thinner, and secondhand smoke
But what makes people develop this type of headache to begin with?  Scientists still don’t know, but many suspect nervous system sensitivities, genes and/or chemical imbalances in the brain may play a part.

Ending Migraine Pain
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for migraines, but many people find relief with a combination of prevention strategies and medications. Keeping a "headache diary" that details when and how your migraines start, how often you experience them and any changes to your day-to-day habits (especially what you’ve eaten and how much you’ve slept) that precede them, can help you identify and avoid your triggers. You can take this diary with you to any appointments you have with your primary healthcare provider or neurologist to help create the ideal treatment plan.

Common migraine triggers can include skipping meals, changes in estrogen levels (think starting or stopping birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, as well as menopause or ovulation), stress, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and alcohol—particularly beer and red wine.

Sticking to a sleep schedule, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, managing stress and limiting your alcohol and caffeine consumption may help, too.
If you end up with a migraine despite your best efforts, try these self-care tips:
  • Rest in a quiet, dark room.
  • Drink water and stay hydrated, especially if you’re vomiting
  • Take pain medication as prescribed by your healthcare provider (or as soon as symptoms occur if you use over-the-counter painkillers)
  • Stay calm; try progressive relaxation or breathing exercises
Medications for Migraines
Over-the-counter analgesics, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can help you tackle mild migraine pain. Your healthcare provider can also prescribe medication for more severe pain, including prescription-strength painkillers designed for migraine pain, anti-nausea medications and, less frequently, opiates and corticosteroids (which are often paired with other medications to relieve pain).

For people with frequent migraines, preventive medications that are taken regularly to decrease the severity of aura symptoms and the frequency of attacks are also available with a prescription.

To help your physician find the most effective treatment for you, arm yourself with details of your migraines (including your headache diary) before you arrive for your appointment. How often do you experience them? How severe is the pain? What symptoms, other than pain, do you have? What makes your pain better or worse?

Migraine Treatments to Avoid
It can hurt to cut out foods you love most (wine and chocolate, anyone?) to curb migraines, but once you identify your food triggers, try not to tempt fate. Stick to what works.

When taking medications, especially over-the-counter options, it can be tempting to take too much, especially when pain is severe or continues despite already taking medication. Stay safe by following the dosing instructions on the bottle and let your healthcare provider know if the pain becomes unmanageable with OTC drugs alone.

With a little time spent analyzing your triggers, organizing a headache diary and working with your healthcare provider, you may find that migraines soon lose their painful punch.
A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. "Migraine," accessed March 20, 2013. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Godman, Heidi. "Migraines: Stop Them Before They Start," accessed March 20, 2013. www.health.harvard.edu.

Hougaard, Anders, MD et al. "Provocation of Migraine with Aura Using Natural Trigger Factors." Neurology (2013). Accessed March 20, 2013. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31827f0f10

Mayo Clinic. "Migraine," accessed March 20, 2013. www.mayoclinic.com.

University Health Services at University of California, Berkeley. "Migraine Triggers," (PDF) accessed March 20, 2013. www.uhs.berkeley.edu.

University of Illinois McKinley Health Center. "Migraine Headache," accessed March 20, 2013. www.mckinley.illinois.edu.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Department of Women's Health. "Migraine Fact Sheet," accessed March 20, 2013. www.womenshealth.gov.

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Member Comments

  • This article has nothing innovative. Perhaps it is time to find writers who actually read peer review articles and write what they know.
  • I started getting migraines after my son was born. Before that I would get daily tension headaches. Now my headaches are less frequent but more severe. I have lots of triggers. Pms, not eating often enough, weather etc, but they donít happen every time so can be unpredictable. Also my migraines tend to be through my entire body. Not just pain in my head. Usually itís down my entire left side. Weirdly, sometimes I get all the other symptoms including the feeling of pressure and stiffness but no actual pain. My dr says thatís normal. The only otc drug that seems to work is excedrine migraine, but unfortunately it is not sold in Canada and the last few friends that have gone to the states have been unable to find it. Iím almost out ??
  • This is great info and something to consider. Thank you.
  • When I do have the occasional migraine, I tie up my head with a scarf like Rambo. Rather tightly. The tightness seem to curb the throbbing pain. Just like how you would bind a sprained ankle to stop it from throbbing and swelling. Plenty of cool water and yes, just stay in a dark room and sleep.
  • How to Stop a Migraine in Its Tracks - To be honest, I felt deceived and tricked into reading the complete article by a title that falls way short of being truthful. Good information but far from a sure fire stopping in its tracks
  • I had chronic migraines for 5years. I could bare2 leave the house. What helped me was medical botox. I've been getting it for 2 years and the results are wonderful. I still get migraines but not nearly5often.
  • this article is very elementary. I've seen more information in almost any other, unfortunately. If you are new to migraines this information might be helpful. Sadly, every migraine sufferer that's had them for any length of time knows this much by now. OTC meds do nothing for my migraines. Neither do any prescribed migraine meds after three months. Preventives make my other conditions worse. What does sometimes help me is peppermint oil compresses, caffeine, and as last resort, my opioid pain reliever. When that doesn't work, I accept it and pray.
  • I've found that if I take Aleve when I start getting visual disturbances that it really reduces the amount of pain that I get with a migraine. Of course everyone is different, and nothing works for everyone, but this really works for me, and for my daughter.
  • The only OTC med that works is Excedrin or Excedrin Migraine. The others are all worthless and cause other problems. Tylenol and Ibuprofen cause me even more pain. I've had migraines since I was at least 10 years old and I'm 61 now. Been on all sorts of meds and pain relievers. I've taken daily preventives and prescription pain meds for years - different ones because after a while, instead of helping they cause more problems. Waiting to get in to see my neurologist about changing my meds again - I had to quit my preventive meds because they were triggering more migraines. It gets old really fast. I realize that triggers can also help relieve the pain whether or not a doctor does, it happens. I can't give up caffeine or I get really bad migraines. There's a fine line between what helps and too much. Years ago and I mean back when aspartame came out, it would instantly give me a migraine. For years people called me a liar but now wow, it's a trigger. Don't ever let anyone tell you something can't trigger a migraine if it does in you. They're not the ones that have them, you are. It's been a struggle but I force myself to function even when I barely can tolerate movement. I've been told I couldn't have a migraine by other sufferers because I was trying to function normally - it didn't matter to them that I was on a daily preventive medication. Everyone's migraines are different. My former co-workers could tell I was going to have a migraine by my eyes - I never figured it out but they were dead on accurate.
  • Ibuprofen and aspirin do absolutely nothing for migraines at least in my experience. Excedrin Migraine is the only OTC medication that helps mine and it is because it contains caffeine. I also disagree with limiting caffeine intake to prevent migraines, if I don't have caffeine in the morning it triggers migraines. Thankfully mine are not as bad or as frequent as they were during my childhood, I no longer vomit after having one and they are much less severe, I do have that drained feeling after one though. Hormones are the worst trigger of mine along with strong scents (smoke and perfume) and altering my sleep schedule especially if I nap during the day.
    This is truly an very over simplified article on a complicated subject. It might be better titled how to help the headache sufferer. Those who have struggled with migraines any length of time know that easy answers aren't going to be found in a little article. These seem to encourage those that don't have migraines to try to give simple advice rather than help true migraine sufferers. Sorry but that's my take. I am an R.N. with my B.S.N.
  • I THINK I have only had one migraine in my entire life but one was enough - I can stand most pain BUT I generally draw the line at headaches.

About The Author

Robin Donovan Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and magazine journalist with experience covering health, medicine, science, business, technology and design.