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How to Treat a Migraine

June 12, 2024

Closed-eyed woman suffering a migraine and rubbing her temples

An estimated 36 million people in the United States are affected by migraine symptoms. The condition can be so debilitating it interferes with work, school and activities. However, most people who suffer from migraine symptoms have never sought medical evaluation. Learn about the most common signs you could be having a migraine attack, as well as when to see your doctor.

“So many people aren’t aware that they are suffering from migraines or they’ve been misdiagnosed at some point,” says Minal Vijay Patel, DO, a neurologist and headache specialist at Atlantic Health System. “If you have severe headaches more than once a week, it’s time to check in with your provider so you can learn about your diagnosis and find treatment options.”

What are migraine attacks?

Dr. Patel explains that a migraine is a complex neurological disorder that can significantly impact your quality of life. Migraine frequency varies from person to person. Some people have episodic migraines, meaning few to several headache days a month. Other people experience chronic migraines, which are more than 15 headache days per month. The number of episodes you experience, as well as your symptoms, can fluctuate over time.

Common migraine symptoms include:

  • Moderate to severe headache lasting four hours or more
  • Pain on either side of your head
  • Worsening pain with movement or exercise
  • Light sensitivity
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Noise sensitivity

Migraine triggers

A migraine trigger is something that lowers your threshold for a migraine attack. Dr. Patel stresses that they are not the cause of your migraine pain. Triggers are not always something you can control.

Common migraine triggers can include:

  • Weather changes
  • Menstruation
  • Stress
  • Skipping meals
  • Strong odors or fragrances
  • Dehydration
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Loud noises
  • Bright lights

Sometimes changes to your lifestyle can be enough to keep headaches at bay. Dr. Patel says that regular exercise, hydration, plenty of sleep and eating at regular intervals can help decrease the frequency of migraine attacks.

Treatment options

When lifestyle changes do not adequately reduce migraine symptoms, medications are often prescribed for frequent or chronic migraines. Because using over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen too often can cause medication-overuse headaches, Dr. Patel cautions against using them more than twice per week.

“Many people who have frequent migraine attacks treat their pain as needed with over-the-counter pain relievers instead of preventive medications that are designed to treat their condition,” says Dr. Patel. “Unfortunately, doing this can make a migraine more difficult to treat in the long run.”

While there is no cure for migraine, there are several treatments available to lessen the severity and frequency of your symptoms. Medications can help decrease monthly migraine days, relieve your symptoms during a migraine attack or prevent one from happening in the first place. Medications come in many forms, including pills, injections and nasal sprays.

Triptans are a type of medicine that can treat a migraine as it’s happening. Preventive treatment options include anti-epileptic drugs, antidepressants, and medications used to treat high blood pressure. In the past few years, new oral and injectable medications, designed specifically for migraines have come onto the market. Dr. Patel says that if you have 15 or more headache days per month, Botulinum toxin type A, commonly known as Botox®, injections are also an effective option. Keeping track of how often you have migraine symptoms can help your provider understand the severity of your condition.

Alternative therapies may be effective for some people. Supplements that might help with migraines include magnesium, vitamin B2 and coenzyme Q10. Because certain supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Patel says you should discuss these options with your medical provider. In addition, she says you might find ice caps, neuromodulation devices and biofeedback to be helpful.

When to see your doctor

If you’re having moderate to severe headaches that are impacting your quality of life, Dr. Patel says it’s time to see your primary care physician or a neurologist about your pain. She explains that seeking treatment early is the key to managing your symptoms.

“There is stigma linked to migraines and people are reluctant to see a doctor about their symptoms,” says Dr. Patel. “The sooner we can get you diagnosed and begin treatment, the sooner you will find relief. There is no cure for migraines, but we’ve come a long way with treatment options and you don’t have to suffer in silence.”

  • Brain Health