Experiencing a Migraine? Here’s What to Do

When you have a migraine, it can leave you pleading for it to stop. But it takes more than wishful thinking to stop the throbbing pain and other migraine symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting, sensory changes, and fatigue.

Left untreated, migraine pain can last from four hours to three days. That’s according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Difference Between Migraine and Tension Headaches

When figuring out how to treat a migraine, determine if you have a migraine or a tension headache.

What’s a tension headache?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, according to NINDS.

The pain from tension headaches is mild to moderate, and they have no other symptoms. Most people feel pain on both sides of their heads. It feels like constant pressure on the front or sides of your face, head, or neck.

Tension headaches happen when mental or emotional stress makes your neck, face, scalp, or jaw muscles too tight. Other triggers for tension headaches include:

  • Clenching your jaw at night.
  • Working too much.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Having depression or anxiety.
  • Not getting enough sleep.
  • Having sleep apnea.

Tension headaches can feel painful. But they aren’t debilitating — they don’t wipe you out physically the way that migraines do. You can still function and go about your daily activities.

Relaxation techniques often help relieve tension headache pain. “If these aren’t helping you should see your doctor to discuss medical treatment,” says Jonathan Zuckerman, MD, MPH, of Renaissance Family Practice-UPMC.

What’s a migraine?

Migraines are another type of primary headache disorder. They aren’t as common as tension headaches. Migraines affect 12% of Americans, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Migraines can cause severe, often debilitating pain. It feels like throbbing or pulsating pain, often on one side of your head. Regular activity, movement, coughing, or sneezing can worsen the pain.

If you have a migraine, your pain often comes back. You can have migraine pain several times a month.

Migraine pain is moderate to severe and lasts for four hours or more. You may also have any mix of these symptoms with a migraine:

  • Sensitivity to light, noise, and odors.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Paleness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Dizziness.
  • Seeing bright, flashing dots or lights, blind spots, wavy or jagged lines in your field of vision. This is a migraine with an aura. “It is usually an indication of
    more severe migraines,” adds Dr. Zuckerman.

Major risk factors for migraine

Anyone can get a migraine. But according to the National Library of Medicine, your migraine risk is higher if you:

  • Are a woman. Compared to men, women are three times more likely to get migraines.
  • Have a family history of migraines. Most people with migraines have family members who have migraines.
  • Have other health issues that raise migraine risk. These include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and epilepsy.

Migraine triggers

Several things can trigger a migraine. These include:

  • Anxiety or stress.
  • Hormonal changes in women.
  • Loud noises, strong smells, or bright or flashing lights.
  • Certain medicines.
  • Too much or not enough sleep.
  • Sudden changes in weather or environment.
  • Overexertion, or too much physical activity.
  • Tobacco or alcohol use.
  • Having too much caffeine or caffeine withdrawal.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Dehydration.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • Motion sickness.
  • Taking migraine medicine too often. This is medication overuse.
  • Eating certain foods, including chocolate, aged cheeses, fermented or pickled food, and cured or processed meats.

Knowing your triggers and avoiding them can help you prevent a migraine.

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What To Do If You Have A Migraine

The next time you feel migraine pain coming on, take your migraine pain medicine as soon as possible. Several drugs treat migraine pain. These include triptans, ergotamines, and over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers. “Some migraine medications work to stop migraines when they start, while others are daily medications that work to prevent them from happening,” says Dr. Zuckerman.

Your doctor will suggest a medicine that’s best for you. For medications that work to stop migraines after they start, the sooner you take it, the better they work.

Home remedies for migraine include:

  • Drinking plenty of cold fluids.
  • Resting with your eyes closed in a dark, quiet room.
  • Placing a cold compress or ice pack on your head.

To prevent and control migraine, your doctor may also suggest relaxation techniques. Biofeedback and progressive muscle relaxation are non-drug therapies that can help prevent and manage headaches. That’s according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Your doctor can refer you to a mental health expert who can train you to use these techniques at home.

When to Get Medical Care for Migraine

If you get migraines often, you should see your doctor. They can rule out any other causes of your pain.

To treat your migraine, you may need to see a neurologist. These doctors specialize in treating migraines and other neurological disorders.

You should also plan a visit to your doctor if:

  • Your migraine pain or pattern changes.
  • You need to take medicine more than three days a week.
  • You have side effects from your prescription migraine medicine.
  • Your headaches are worse when you are lying down.
  • Your treatment has stopped working.
  • You are taking birth control pills and start having migraines.
  • You are pregnant or could become pregnant. You can’t take migraine medicine during pregnancy.

When Are Migraines An Emergency?

Serious health issues like a stroke can cause symptoms similar to migraine pain. 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 lose sensation in one part
    of your body.
  • You get confused or disoriented.
  • You have a fever along with your migraine or any other headache.

Headache. National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Link.

Migraine. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.

When To Go to the Emergency Room for A Migraine. American Migraine Foundation. Link.

Visual Disturbances: Related to Migraine or Not? American Migraine Foundation. Link.

Relaxation Techniques: What You Need to Know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Link.

Biofeedback and Relaxation Training for Migraine. American Migraine Foundation. Link.

About UPMC

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