A migraine can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on one side of the head. It’s often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can last for hours to days, and the pain can be so severe that it interferes with your daily activities.
For some people, a warning symptom known as an aura occurs before or with the headache. An aura can include visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots, or other disturbances, such as tingling on one side of the face or in an arm or leg and difficulty speaking.
Medications can help prevent some migraines and make them less painful. The right medicines, combined with self-help remedies and lifestyle changes, might help.
Migraines, which often begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, can progress through four stages: prodrome, aura, attack and post-drome. Not everyone who has migraines goes through all stages.
One or two days before a migraine, you might notice subtle changes that warn of an upcoming migraine, including:
- Mood changes, from depression to euphoria
- Food cravings
- Neck stiffness
- Increased thirst and urination
- Frequent yawning
For some people, aura might occur before or during migraines. Auras are reversible symptoms of the nervous system. They’re usually visual, but can also include other disturbances. Each symptom usually begins gradually, builds up over several minutes and lasts for 20 to 60 minutes.
Examples of migraine aura include:
- Visual phenomena, such as seeing various shapes, bright spots or flashes of light
- Vision loss
- Pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg
- Weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body
- Difficulty speaking
- Hearing noises or music
- Uncontrollable jerking or other movements
A migraine usually lasts from four to 72 hours if untreated. How often migraines occur varies from person to person. Migraines might occur rarely or strike several times a month.
During a migraine, you might have:
- Pain usually on one side of your head, but often on both sides
- Pain that throbs or pulses
- Sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell and touch
- Nausea and vomiting
After a migraine attack, you might feel drained, confused and washed out for up to a day. Some people report feeling elated. Sudden head movement might bring on the pain again briefly.
When to see a doctor
Migraines are often undiagnosed and untreated. If you regularly have signs and symptoms of migraine, keep a record of your attacks and how you treated them. Then make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your headaches.
Even if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different.
See your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have any of the following signs and symptoms, which could indicate a more serious medical problem:
- An abrupt, severe headache like a thunderclap
- Headache with fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness or trouble speaking
- Headache after a head injury, especially if the headache worsens
- A chronic headache that is worse after coughing, exertion, straining or a sudden movement
- New headache pain after age 50
Though migraine causes aren’t fully understood, genetics and environmental factors appear to play a role.
Changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway, might be involved. So might imbalances in brain chemicals — including serotonin, which helps regulate pain in your nervous system.
Researchers are studying the role of serotonin in migraines. Other neurotransmitters play a role in the pain of migraine, including calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP).
There are a number of migraine triggers, including:
- Hormonal changes in women. Fluctuations in estrogen, such as before or during menstrual periods, pregnancy and menopause, seem to trigger headaches in many women.Hormonal medications, such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, also can worsen migraines. Some women, however, find their migraines occurring less often when taking these medications.
- Drinks. These include alcohol, especially wine, and too much caffeine, such as coffee.
- Stress. Stress at work or home can cause migraines.
- Sensory stimuli. Bright lights and sun glare can induce migraines, as can loud sounds. Strong smells — including perfume, paint thinner, secondhand smoke and others — trigger migraines in some people.
- Sleep changes. Missing sleep, getting too much sleep or jet lag can trigger migraines in some people.
- Physical factors. Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, might provoke migraines.
- Weather changes. A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine.
- Medications. Oral contraceptives and vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin, can aggravate migraines.
- Foods. Aged cheeses and salty and processed foods might trigger migraines. So might skipping meals or fasting.
- Food additives. These include the sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in many foods.
Several factors make you more prone to having migraines, including:
- Family history. If you have a family member with migraines, then you have a good chance of developing them too.
- Age. Migraines can begin at any age, though the first often occurs during adolescence. Migraines tend to peak during your 30s, and gradually become less severe and less frequent in the following decades.
- Sex. Women are three times more likely to have migraines.
- Hormonal changes. For women who have migraines, headaches might begin just before or shortly after onset of menstruation. They might also change during pregnancy or menopause. Migraines generally improve after menopause.
Taking combination painkillers, such as Excedrin Migraine for more than 10 days a month for three months or in higher doses can trigger serious medication-overuse headaches. The same is true if you take aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) for more than 15 days a month or triptans, sumatriptan (Imitrex, Tosymra) or rizatriptan (Maxalt), for more than nine days a month.
Medication-overuse headaches occur when medications stop relieving pain and begin to cause headaches. You then use more pain medication, which continues the cycle.
Best Natural Ways to Reduce Migraine Symptoms Quickly
Migraines aren’t typical headaches. If you experience them, you know you may experience pounding pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound. When a migraine strikes, you’ll do almost anything to make it go away.
Natural remedies are a drug-free way to reduce migraine symptoms. These at-home treatments may help prevent migraines, or at least help reduce their severity and duration.
Note: Severe migraines may require treatment with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Talk to your doctor about a treatment plan that works for you.
1. Avoid hot dogs
Diet plays a vital role in preventing migraines. Many foods and beverages are known migraine triggers, such as:
- foods with nitrates including hot
dogs, deli meats, bacon, and sausage
- cheese that contains the
naturally-occurring compound tyramine, such as blue, feta, cheddar, Parmesan,
- alcohol, especially red wine
- foods that contain monosodium
glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer
- foods that are very cold such as ice
cream or iced drinks
- processed foods
- pickled foods
- dried fruits
- cultured dairy products such as
buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt
A small amount of caffeine may ease migraine pain in some people. Caffeine is also in some migraine medications. But, too much caffeine may cause a migraine. It may also lead to a severe caffeine withdrawal headache.
To figure out which foods and beverages trigger your migraines, keep a daily food diary. Record everything you eat and note how you feel afterward.
2. Apply lavender oil
Inhaling lavender essential oil may ease migraine pain. According to 2012 research, people who inhaled lavender oil during a migraine attack for 15 minutes experienced faster relief than those who inhaled a placebo. Lavender oil may be inhaled directly or applied diluted to the temples.
3. Try acupressure
Acupressure is the practice of applying pressure with the fingers and hands to specific points on the body to relieve pain and other symptoms. According to a 2014 systematic review, acupressure is a credible alternative therapy for people in pain from chronic headaches and other conditions. A separate study found acupressure may help relieve migraine-associated nausea.
4. Look for feverfew
Feverfew is a flowering herb that looks like a daisy. It’s a folk remedy for migraines. According to a 2004 systematic reviewe, however, there’s not enough evidence that feverfew prevents migraines. Still, many people claim it helps their migraine symptoms without side effects.
5. Apply peppermint oil
The menthol in peppermint oil may stop a migraine from coming on, according to a 2010 study. The study found that applying a menthol solution to the forehead and temples was more effective than placebo for migraine-associated pain, nausea, and light sensitivity.
6. Go for ginger
Ginger is known to ease nausea caused by many conditions, including migraines. It may also have other migraine benefits. According to research, ginger powder decreased migraine severity and duration as well as the prescription drug sumatriptan, and with fewer side effects.
7. Sign up for yoga
Yoga uses breathing, meditation, and body postures to promote health and well-being. Research shows yoga may relieve the frequency, duration, and intensity of migraines. It’s thought to improve anxiety, release tension in migraine-trigger areas, and improve vascular health.
Although researchers conclude it’s too soon to recommend yoga as a primary treatment for migraines, they believe yoga supports overall health and may be beneficial as a complementary therapy.
8. Try biofeedback
Biofeedback is a relaxation method. It teaches you to control autonomic reactions to stress. Biofeedback may be helpful for migraines triggered by physical reactions to stress such as muscle tensing.
9. Add magnesium to your diet
Magnesium deficiency is linked to headaches and migraines. Studies show magnesium oxide supplementation helps prevent migraines with aura. It may also prevent menstrual-related migraines.
You can get magnesium from foods that include:
- sesame seeds
- sunflower seeds
- Brazil nuts
- peanut butter
10. Book a massage
A weekly massage may reduce migraine frequency and improve sleep quality, according to a 2006 study. The research suggests massage improves perceived stress and coping skills. It also helps decrease heart rate, anxiety, and cortisol levels.
If you get migraines, you know the symptoms can be challenging to cope with. You might miss work or not be able to participate in activities you love. Try the above remedies and find some relief.
It might also be helpful to talk to others who understand exactly what you’re going through. Our free app, Migraine Healthline, connects you with real people who experience migraines. Ask treatment-related questions and seek advice from others who get it. Download the app for iPhone or Android.
References: Mayo Clinic,Healthline