Nonpharmacological Treatments for Migraines

Because migraine headaches can be self-limiting, it's important for patients to know how to get rid of them in a timely fashion.

Have you ever experienced a painful, throbbing headache accompanied by flashes of light, blind spots, nausea and vomiting, or tingling in the arms and legs? If so, you were most likely experiencing a migraine.

Migraines can last up to several hours or, in extreme cases, several days. Because migraine headaches can be self-limiting, it’s important for patients to know how to get rid of them in a timely fashion.

Although there are plenty of OTC and prescription drugs available to treat migraine, medication isn’t the only option. This article presents some nonpharmacological tips on what to do when a migraine occurs and how to prevent a subsequent migraine.

Migraine Triggers

Certain factors can trigger a migraine or exacerbate symptoms. Obvious ones include bright lights and loud noises, but you may not know that odors can also have a big impact. In fact, study results show that 25% to 50% of those with migraines experience an intensified sensitivity to odors during their migraine headaches, and up to half of them said strong smells or odors actually triggered their acute migraine attacks.

Certain odors that may lead to a migraine can differ among individuals and even vary from headache to headache in the same individual. A few common odors that affect migraines include perfume, cigarette smoke, paint thinner, car exhaust, gasoline, and cleaning products. These odors should be avoided, if possible, especially during a migraine.

Some patients with migraines have pointed to certain foods as triggers. Once again, each individual is different, so a food that may trigger one patient’s migraines may not necessarily trigger another’s. A few potential trigger foods are aged cheeses, beans, citrus fruits, whole milk, pickles, alcoholic beverages, and foods with preservatives.

The Association of Migraine Disorders has put together a list of foods to avoid, as well a safe migraine diet, in order to reduce the odds of migraine attacks. Implementing an elimination diet can help reveal a patient’s exact food triggers. Patients should start by eliminating foods on the potential triggers list and then adding them back to their diets one at a time until a trigger is found.

Relaxation Techniques

The methods described above can prevent migraines, but they won’t treat them. Fortunately, there are several nonpharmacological treatment options.

The first is relaxation techniques. Because a common trigger of migraines is stress, relaxation training can be a go-to treatment method.

Relaxation techniques include deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. In order to perform deep breathing exercises, you have to imagine a spot just below your bellybutton and breathe into it, filling the stomach with air. Once the abdomen is full, slowly exhale all the air, and with each exhale, you should begin to feel more relaxed.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a little different. This is where you have to switch your thoughts to your breathing. You still have to take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly, but this time, you’re mentally scanning your body.

Patients with a migraine can quickly loosen up the areas that are tense by rotating the head in a smooth, circular motion twice. Then, roll the shoulders forward and backward several times, letting the muscles relax while recalling a pleasant thought for a few minutes.

With practice, this technique may not only reduce the number of migraines, but also improve stress management.

Exercise

Another option is exercise, though it can be both a migraine trigger and a treatment, so it’s important to do it correctly.

Intense and sporadic exercise can cause migraines, so patients shouldn’t jump into an exercise routine without warming up for 5 to 10 minutes. Those new to physical activity should start slowly and participate in gentle exercises like yoga, walking, and swimming until they get accustomed.

Regular exercise can reduce the frequency or severity of headaches by reducing tension.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves the insertion of about 5 to 20 extremely thin needles through various points of the skin, which is believed to rebalance energy flow. While the needles are in the body, the practitioner may gently twirl them around and apply heat. In most cases, the needles remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes while the patient lies still and relax.

Acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain, as it boosts the body’s natural painkillers and increases blood flow. The American Headache Society recently recommended acupuncture for migraines, and studies suggest acupuncture can ease migraine pain and also lower the occurrences of migraines.

Sleep

Last but not least, it’s important to get the right amount of sleep. Those with migraines tend to wake up tired and have problems falling asleep.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night for the average adult. Studies have shown that lack of sleep correlates with both the frequency and intensity of migraines.

A lot of patients with migraines will experience insomnia as a result, which can lead to a vicious cycle contributing to more migraine headaches. A solution to this problem is good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding naps during the day, not eating before bed, and establishing a regular bedtime.

Migraines are a recurrent nuisance, but taking proper measures may cut down their frequency and intensity. It’s important for patients to take care of themselves and make sure they’re getting an appropriate amount of sleep and exercise.

If migraines are chronic and recurrent, patients should contact their prescriber about pharmacological treatment to take in combination with nonpharmacological treatments. These tips should not only improve migraines, but also overall health.