Migraines can interrupt your day and your life. They are one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Learning how to treat migraines at home can help you manage your symptoms so you can get on with your life.
Headaches vs. Migraines
Migraines affect about 12% of Americans, according to the National Library of Medicine. Like all headaches, migraines are a neurological disorder. Researchers often link migraines to genetic mutations in your brain. Here’s how to tell the difference between a common tension headache and a migraine.
What does a tension-type headache look like?
Tension headaches are the most common headaches. Tension headaches:
- Are usually mild to moderate pain in your head, face, or neck.
- Feel like a dull pressure, often surrounding your head.
- Last for less than four hours.
- Have no other symptoms.
What does a migraine look like?
- Feel like throbbing, pulsing, or pounding pain.
- Cause pain that is typically on one side of your head, but the pain possibly can shift or affect both sides. It can get worse when you move, sneeze or cough.
- Last anywhere from four hours up to 72 hours.
- Can include more than one episode — or migraine attack — that can occur over several days.
- Often include upset stomach or nausea. You may vomit.
- Often include sensitivity to light, sound, or smells.
- Can include muscle weakness.
- Can include visual disturbances known as “aura” before the migraine pain begins. This includes seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines. You may also have a temporary loss of vision.
You can have both tension and migraine headaches, and they can occur at the same time.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Thank you for subscribing!
You are already subscribed.
Sorry, an error occurred. Please try again later.
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
How To Treat Migraines at Home
At-home treatments for migraines include over-the-counter (OTC) medications and relaxation techniques. You may need to use both to help manage your migraine symptoms.
“Migraine treatments including medications are most effective when used at the first sign of a migraine episode. Understanding your triggers as well as early symptoms can help you identify migraine attacks sooner. Treatments may take longer to take effect if you wait to start them,” says Dewan Majid, MD, from Primary Care at Magee.
OTC medications for migraine
OTC medications include:
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
Also known as NSAIDs, these reduce inflammation and pain. NSAIDs include:
- Aspirin (Bayer).
- Ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin IB).
- Naproxen sodium (Aleve).
Acetaminophen is the active ingredient found in Tylenol Regular Strength and Tylenol Extra Strength. You can also buy generic acetaminophen.
Some OTC pain killers contain caffeine, which may help the medicine work faster or better. If your migraine remains after you’ve taken a single OTC pain medicine, you may want to use one of these combination medicines.
- Anacin, which contains aspirin and caffeine.
- Excedrin Migraine, which contains aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine.
- Excedrin Tension Headache, which contains acetaminophen and caffeine.
Medicines that contain caffeine may increase your risk of medication overuse or rebound headaches. “Use caution when using these medications,” says Dr. Majid.
Which OTC medication should you use for migraines?
The OTC medication you use depends on your own health and what other medications you already take. You should talk to your doctor about which medication makes sense for you.
For example, if you already take a blood thinner, you should avoid or use caution taking aspirin or another NSAID. If you take too much aspirin or NSAIDs, it can increase your risk of bleeding and kidney problems. If you have liver problems, you should avoid or use caution when taking acetaminophen-containing drugs.
Other techniques to treat migraines at home
Relaxation techniques can help get you through a migraine and manage symptoms. The next time you feel a migraine coming on, try these tips:
- Sit or rest with your eyes closed in a cool, dark, quiet room.
- Use a cold cloth or ice bag on your forehead. A bag of frozen peas works well as an ice pack.
- Sip ice water.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you have vomited.
- Don’t smoke.
- Don’t drink coffee, caffeinated beverages, or alcoholic beverages.
- Get some sleep.
When Should You See A Doctor for Migraine
If you get migraines often, you should see your doctor to rule out any other causes. For specialized treatment, you may need to see a neurologist, a doctor who treats migraines and other neurological disorders.
To treat your migraine, you may need a prescription medication. Some prescription medications help prevent migraines and some help manage migraine symptoms.
Other reasons to schedule an appointment with your doctor include if:
- Your migraine patterns or pain changes.
- You need to take medicine more than three days a week.
- You are taking birth control pills and start having migraines.
- Your headaches are worse when you are lying down.
- You have side effects from your prescription medication.
- Your treatment has stopped working.
- You are pregnant or could become pregnant. You can’t take certain migraine medications during pregnancy.
When Migraines Are Emergencies
Call 911 or an emergency number if:
- You develop a sudden headache or a severe headache that feels explosive.
- You are experiencing “the worst headache of your life.”
- You have speech, vision, or movement problems, especially if you never had these symptoms with a headache before.
- You have a loss of balance or weakness, especially if you never had these symptoms with a headache before.
- You have a fever along with your migraine or any other headache.
Migraine. What research is being done? National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Link.
Migraine. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.
Tension Headache. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.
OTC Migraine Treatment. American Migraine Foundation. Link.
Managing Migraines at Home. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.
Acute Migraine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.
About Primary Care
The relationship with a patient and their primary care doctor can be extremely valuable, and that’s what you get with UPMC Primary Care. When you work with a primary care physician (PCP), you develop a lasting relationship. Your doctor will get to know you and your history and can plan your treatments accordingly. Our PCPs offer a variety of services, including preventive care and treatment for both urgent and chronic conditions. With dozens of UPMC Primary Care locations across our network of care, you can find a PCP close to you. Schedule an appointment today.