There are many kinds of headaches. Migraine headaches may involve:
Severe pain on one or both sides of the head
Sensitivity to lights and sounds
Changes in vision
The pain of a migraine headache is described as intense, throbbing, or pounding and can be felt in the forehead, temple, ear, jaw, or around the eye. Migraine often starts on one side of the head but may spread to the other side.
Some people notice vague symptoms before the migraine starts. These can include:
Retention of fluids
Some people may have neurological symptoms called an aura up to an hour before the headache starts. You may see flashing lights, zigzag lines, or may lose vision for a short time.
Other symptoms of aura may include:
Weakness of an arm or leg
Tingling of the face or hands
During the headache phase of a migraine, you may have diarrhea, increased urination, nausea and vomiting. The pain of a migraine can last several days.
Migraines can strike as often as a few times a week, or as rarely as once every few years. It can happen at any time.
Sometimes, migraines can happen daily or almost daily. This is called chronic migraine. Some people have migraines at the same times such as around menstruation or every Saturday morning after a stressful week of work.
There are many theories about what causes a migraine. Complex changes happen in the brain during and between migraine attacks. Often, migraines may run in families. Headache triggers are different for each person. Some people do not know of any triggers, while others list one or more triggers. What may trigger a migraine one time may not trigger one every time.
Too much or too little sleep
Medicine overuse headaches may also happen when you use either caffeine or short-acting pain medicines more than two days a week.
There are many treatment options for migraines. Success often involves both lifestyle changes and medicines.
The goals of treatment are to:
Decrease the number and severity of your headaches.
Allow you to be active, get back control of your life.
Enjoy life as fully as you can with as few side effects as possible.
Getting rid of caffeine
Getting rid of certain foods
Aerobic exercise, such as swimming or vigorous walking
Types of Medicines
Preventive medicines that prevent and decrease the number and intensity of the attacks.
Abortive medicines that treat a headache once it has started.
If you have migraines more than twice a week or 1-2 headaches per month that effect your daily life, you should be take a preventive medicine. These medicines include:
You need to take these medicines every day for them to work. It may take a few weeks for them to start working, so be patient. For some patients with chronic migraine (daily or near daily headaches) treatment may include Botox injections.
For less frequent migraines, you can take medicines at the first sign of a headache to stop it or ease the pain. Using these medicines too often can cause medicine overuse headaches.
One of the medicines often used to stop a migraine is called a triptan. Another is ergotamine tartrate. For best results, you need to take these during the early stages of a migraine.
Caffeine can also be an abortive medicine for headaches, but daily caffeine use can make headaches worse. At times, you may need to stop using caffeine to help your headaches get better.
Other pain medicines can sometimes help to stop a migraine. These include over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®), naproxen (Aleve®). You should always get your doctor’s advice before you use these to treat migraines.
Opioid Pain Medicine
Sometimes opioid medicines are prescribed but these can cause headaches to be worse.
Many headache medicines can have side effects. But like most medicines they are fairly safe when used with care and under your doctor's orders. Make sure you know the side effects of your medicines. Your doctor can help answer any questions.
Other Pain Relief Methods
During a migraine headache, a cold pack may give short term relief.
Biofeedback and Relaxation Training
Medicine for migraines is often combined with biofeedback and training on how to relax. Biofeedback is a way to give people better control over body functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, muscle tension, and brain waves.
You can practice biofeedback at home with a portable monitor. But the goal of treatment is to do biofeedback without a machine to help you. You can then use biofeedback anywhere at the first sign of a headache.
Many people with migraines are helped by changing their diet. Talk to your doctor about whether a diet change could help.
Planning Your Treatment
Your doctor will help you set up a treatment plan for your headaches. Write it down and keep a copy with you. If you need to see a different doctor about your headaches, your treatment plan will help you get the best care.
To Find Out More
American Council for Headache Education
National Headache Foundation
National Institutes of Health Neurological Institute