7 Tips to Ease Migraine Pain

By Beth W. Orenstein

When a migraine attack sets in, all you want is relief. For some people, taking migraine medication can help ease the pain, says Janine Good, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

But is there anything else you can do to help shorten the attack or make the symptoms more bearable until the medication starts to work?

If you’re in need of migraine first aid, try the following suggestions. Most of these interventions are free and come with no side effects.

1. Rest in a Quiet, Dark Room

Many people with migraine report sensitivity to light and sound, which can make headaches worse. According to a study published in Nature Neuroscience, the pain caused by light can be traced to a group of light-sensing cells in the eye called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs), which help maintain sleep-wake cycles and pupil response to light. In rats, these cells converge on brain cells that transmit pain.

Exposure to light activates the ipRGC cells and the pain-transmitting cells, and the cells remain activated for several minutes. The researchers theorize that that mechanism could be the reason headache pain gets worse in the light and improves 20 to 30 minutes after being in the dark.

Go to a room that’s dark and quiet, and you may be able to sleep, Dr. Good says. “Not all headaches respond to sleep,” she notes, but the chemicals released in your brain during sleep may help ease your pain. Also, she says, if you’re sensitive to sounds, blocking them out could help.

2. Apply a Warm or Cold Compress to Your Head or Neck

Place a warm or cold compress across your forehead or the back of your neck.

“Many of my patients prefer a cold compress,” says Lawrence C. Newman, MD, director of the division of headache at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City and a board member of the American Migraine Foundation.

Cold can have a numbing effect. “It distracts the brain from the migraine,” says Good. “You’re stimulating other nerve endings where you’re putting the compress.”

To protect your skin, keep a cloth between your skin and an ice pack, and if you use a commercial cold pack, make sure there are no leaks where chemicals could escape and potentially harm your eyes, according to the University of Michigan Health.

Some people may prefer a warm compress, Dr. Newman says. Heat can help relax tense muscles. You may also try taking a warm bath or shower.

3. Hydrate Aggressively

About one in three people with migraine says dehydration is a trigger for their headaches, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Staying hydrated between attacks, therefore, may help to prevent some.

Once you feel a migraine coming on, aggressively hydrating may help shorten the length of your attack, says Roderick Spears, MD, a neurologist and headache specialist at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. “Drinking a lot of water can help,” he says.

Have trouble drinking enough water? Try flavoring plain water with a slice of lemon or lime or adding a small amount of fruit juice. When your water tastes better, you may drink more.

4. Massage Your Temples

Massage can help your muscles relax, and it’s been studied for pain management for several conditions, including headache, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Whether this helps you depends on the person, Newman says. Some people experiencing a migraine may be extremely sensitive to touch, and a massage can make them feel worse. This is especially true for people with allodynia, a fairly common symptom of migraine where people are very sensitive to touch and other stimuli that isn’t typically painful.

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