An estimated 44.5 million adults in the United States suffer from migraine, a disorder characterized by recurrent attacks of headaches that can cause moderate to severe pain and other bothersome symptoms.
Attacks can be severe enough to disrupt daily life and responsibilities.
If you suffer from migraine, treating symptoms early can help manage your discomfort.
It’s also important to understand which triggers, if any, can affect your migraine.
In this article, I’ll explain the possible causes and symptoms of migraine, and which treatment options may help you find relief from your migraine headaches.
If you’re experiencing new or persistent symptoms, reach out to your provider to discuss your options.
Causes & Symptoms of Migraine
Experts believe the cause of migraine is genetic.
Specifically, migraine headaches may be caused by neurological abnormalities formed as a result of genetic mutations in the brain.
In 2010, researchers found a mutation in the gene TRESK, a gene responsible for delivering instructions for a specific potassium ion channel.
Because potassium channels play an important role in keeping nerve cells at rest, it’s possible that this gene mutation is linked to migraine.
In addition to genetics, there are other factors that can put you at higher risk for migraine:
- Sex: People with vaginas are three times more likely to have migraine.
- Medical conditions: Certain conditions can increase your risk of migraine, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and epilepsy.
More research is underway to better understand the causes, genetic components, and mechanisms of migraine.
This research may help scientists develop new and effective targeted therapies to treat and prevent migraine in the future.
The primary symptom of migraine is a moderate to severe headache.
Migraine headaches are often experienced on one side of the head and can cause severe pain, throbbing, or pulsing.
Additional symptoms can include:
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Worsened pain when you move
- Stomach pain, loss of appetite, and pale appearance (experienced with abdominal migraine)
There are four phases of migraine, though not every person will go through each phase during a migraine attack.
These phases are:
- Prodrome: Before a migraine, you may experience symptoms in the 24 hours leading up to the attack. Symptoms include food cravings, mood changes, fluid retention, frequent urination, and uncontrollable yawning.
- Aura: People who have migraine with aura may see flashing or bright lights, zig-zag lines, or experience a temporary loss of vision or muscle weakness at the onset of migraine.
- Headache: The most commonly experienced phase of migraine. Headaches can come on gradually and become more severe with time.
- Postdrome: After an attack, some people may experience fatigue, weakness, or confusion.
How to Get Rid of Migraine Quickly
There is no cure for migraine.
However, there are treatments and preventive methods that can help.
Keep in mind that not all of these options will work for you.
It may take some trial and error to find the right strategies to mitigate your symptoms.
Lower the lighting
If you’re sensitive to light or find bright lights to be a trigger for your migraine, you may find comfort by resting in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed.
Researchers suggest that cold therapy is the most common treatment option used by people with migraine without aura, and the second most common treatment option used by people with migraine with aura.
Though cold compresses can provide relief for many people with migraine, scientists aren’t exactly sure why.
Some believe that the cold works to constrict blood vessels and slow nerve signals, but studies are still underway to better understand how this works.
Regardless, using a cold compress or ice pack is an easy, affordable, and accessible treatment option you can try to soothe your migraine symptoms.
One study found that targeted neck cooling with an ice band placed around the neck may be particularly effective for some, while another study recommends using a cold compress at the onset of symptoms.
Heating pad & hot compress
Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show that a heating pad or hot compress can help treat migraine.
However, if you think you may be experiencing a sinus or tension headache rather than a migraine headache, a heating pad or hot compress may help to soothe tense muscles.
A hot bath or shower may work in this case as well.
Mild dehydration can contribute to both non-migraine and migraine headaches.
In fact, the term “dehydration headache” refers to specific headache pain that occurs when your body is dehydrated and hasn’t gotten the fluids it needs.
When treating this type of headache as well as migraine headaches, staying hydrated can help to soothe your symptoms.
Drink small amounts regularly, especially if you’re in a warm or hot environment, and increase your daily water intake before symptoms begin.
There are several medications with evidence supporting their effectiveness in treating migraine:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs are considered a first-line treatment for mild to moderate migraine headaches. Over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs that can work include aspirin, diclofenac, ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve).
- Triptans: These FDA-approved prescription medications are an effective first-line treatment for moderate to severe migraine. Triptan options include: almotriptan (Axert), eletriptan (Relpax), frovatriptan (Frova), naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex), and zolmitriptan (Zomig). Evidence suggests that triptans are most effective when taken early in an attack. For people with migraine with aura, it’s recommended to take triptans at the start of an attack rather than at the start of aura.
- Dihydroergotamine: Taken through the nose, this second-line therapy has good evidence of effectiveness, although there are more reported side effects (primarily nausea) when compared with triptans.
- Opioids: Butorphanol, codeine, tramadol, and meperidine (Demerol) have moderate evidence of effectiveness in treating migraine, but they are not prescribed as often given the high potential for abuse and dependence, as well as the risk of rebound headaches.
- Antiemetics: These dopamine antagonist medicines are usually injected and have moderate evidence of effectiveness. Examples include chlorpromazine, droperidol, metoclopramide, and prochlorperazine.
- Ditans: This new group of migraine medications work to block the processes that lead to the development of severe migraine headache. The first medication in this group is called lasmiditan (Reyvow) and it has been approved by the FDA for short-term treatment in people with and without migraine aura.
- Erenumab (Aimovig): This monoclonal antibody has been approved to help prevent migraine in adults.
Some people may find relief by drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages or by using medications combined with caffeine, like Excedrin Migraine.
However, it’s important not to consume too much caffeine, which can make symptoms worse.
Studies show that massage may be an effective non pharmacological treatment option for those suffering from migraine.
Understand your triggers
Though it’s believed that migraine is a result of genetic mutations in the brain, there are additional factors that can trigger a migraine headache.
These triggers include:
- Hormonal changes (in people with vaginas)
- Bright or flashing lights
- Loud noises
- Strong smells
- Sleeping too much or not enough
- Sudden changes in weather
- Consuming caffeine, or experiencing caffeine withdrawal
- Skipping meals
- Taking medicine for migraine too often
- Certain foods (including alcohol, chocolate, aged cheeses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), some fruits and nuts, fermented or pickled foods, yeast, and cured or processed meats)
If you’re unsure whether or not certain triggers impact your migraine headaches, keep a diary of when you experience an attack and which trigger may or may not have been involved.
Once you better understand your triggers, there are certain preventive measures you can take to avoid migraine headaches in the future.
Meditation & relaxation
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), including standardized training in mindfulness and yoga, may help you to cope with the symptoms of migraine, but it will not completely eliminate your symptoms nor reduce the frequency of future migraine symptoms.
Acupuncture can help reduce chronic pain caused by a variety of conditions by increasing circulation, decreasing inflammation, boosting the body’s release of endorphins (also known as the body’s natural painkillers), and increasing the adenosine release, which can reduce the severity of chronic pain through adenosine A1 receptors.
In the treatment of migraine specifically, acupuncture may help reduce sympathetic nerve activity.
Address teeth grinding
Though there is limited evidence to suggest that teeth grinding or chewing can affect migraine, one systematic electronic search found that there may be a correlation between the two.
More research is needed to determine whether teeth grinding causes migraine.
If you grind your teeth at night or chew gum frequently throughout the day, consider limiting gum-chewing or ask your provider about a night guard to see if it may reduce the frequency or severity of your migraine symptoms.
Treat it early
Early treatment is one of the keys to limiting the severity of your symptoms.
Especially with medication, it’s vital that you start treatment as soon as you start experiencing symptoms of a migraine headache.
If you have migraine with aura, providers recommend taking your medication at the start of migraine symptoms rather than the start of aura symptoms.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Migraine can have a debilitating impact on your quality of life, but that doesn’t mean you need to suffer in silence. Reach out to a provider or neurologist to discuss treatment options.
In the meantime, keep a migraine diary to record all of the data possible when you experience symptoms and which factors, if any, may be triggering them.
Having this information will help your provider tailor a treatment strategy to you.
Not all severe headaches are a sign of migraine.
In rare but serious cases, a severe headache may be a sign of something else.
If you experience any of the below symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness in the body
- Double vision
- Stiff neck
- The “worst” headache of your life
- A headache prompted by a head injury
- A severe and sudden headache if you’ve never, or rarely, experience headaches
- You pass out
- Slurred speech
- If you have a headache and take blood thinning medications like Coumadin, Plavix, Eliquis, or Xarelto
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Acupuncture and endorphins. (2003).
Acupuncture in migraine: investigation of autonomic effects. (2008).
Acute Migraine Headache: Treatment Strategies. (2018).
A randomized, controlled trial of massage therapy as a treatment for migraine. (2006).
Association of drinking water and migraine headache severity. (2020).
Effectiveness of Mindfulness Meditation vs. Headache Education for Adults With Migraine: A Randomized Clinical Trial. (2021).
Gum-Chewing and Headache: An Underestimated Trigger of Headache Pain in Migraineurs? (2015).
Migraine Information Page. (2019).
Randomized Controlled Trial: Targeted Neck Cooling in the Treatment of the Migraine Patient. (2013).
The efficacy of ginger for the treatment of migraine: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. (2021).
The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Patients with Migraine. (2013).