Life is interesting because there will be times when stuff happens that’s completely out of your control. These can be the most frustrating times in life, especially when you’ve set goals and made plans for reaching those goals, only to have of these unwanted circumstances drop into your life like a bomb. I had goals and plans for my writing this week, but those have been delayed by at least a day due the migraine bomb that got dropped on me yesterday.
For me, migraines have been a thorn in my side for several years. Migraines are my own personal demon, one I’m never completely sure when it will strike. I’ve suffered from painful headaches for most of my life—since my early teens—but those headaches turned into intense migraines during my college years. I’ve had periods where my migraines were more intense and more frequent, which was typically due to a number of factors.
I’m one of those “lucky” folks who have several types of severe headaches—migraines, cluster headaches, tension headaches, sinus headaches, and more. Sometimes I have an aura, but other times I don’t. Sometimes I’m light and sound sensitive, but other times I’m not. One of the hardest parts about dealing with my headaches is figuring out which type I’m experiencing at any given time. If I guess correctly, I increase my chances of quickly overcoming said headache. If I guess wrong, my attempts at treatment can make it worse.
So, with all this in mind, I thought I might deviate somewhat from my usual topics and share some of the tricks I’ve picked up over the years to help me deal with my migraines and headaches. To begin, it’s good to know what causes migraines—certain causes have specific solutions.
Common Causes of Migraines
- Stress—This is one of the most common triggers of severe headaches and migraines. Looking back, I can see that the period of my life when I was experiencing migraines most frequently (two or three a week) was also one of the most stressful periods of my life. Once I was able to change my environment, and therefore reduce my overall stress, the frequency and intensity of my migraines dropped significantly. More important than any of the tips shared below, lowering your stress is the single most important thing you can do to prevent migraines.
- Food—Many people don’t realize that certain foods can trigger migraines. Akin to having a food allergy, you may discover there are foods you need to avoid or prepare properly so that they don’t trigger migraines. For me, I learned that uncooked red onions, processed meats with phosphates, and Nutrasweet were some of my main triggers. Again, when I look back, I learned that some of my worst migraines occurred when I was almost exclusively drinking diet sodas made with Nutrasweet. Later on, I learned that gluten was likely one of my triggers as well.
- Scents—Your sensitivity to this may vary, but certain scents can trigger headaches. All this depends on a number of factors that you have to figure out for yourself. For me, I’ve learned that I’m especially sensitive to perfumes and floral scents. Above all this, I’ve also learned I have a more acute sense of smell than the average person, and from a migraine-inducing standpoint that’s not a good thing.
- Barometric Pressure—A rapid or wide shift in barometric pressure can cause migraines in some people. In addition, an extended period of stormy weather may increase your sensitivity to said migraines. Earlier this year, my area of Texas had one of the rainiest seasons in recorded history. During that same time period I had a big upswing in the number and intensity of my migraines.
- Muscle/Bone Tension—Though this could be related to stress, that’s not always the case. These types of physical problems can be caused by sleeping positions, posture, and a wide range of other factors.
- Sleep Issues—This is another issue that has a pretty wide sweep when it comes to causing migraines. Knowing how much sleep you need can be crucial. Many people get headaches when they don’t get enough sleep, but it’s even possible to wake up with a migraine if you’ve slept too long. Like Goldilocks, you’ve got to find what’s “just right” for you.
- High Blood Pressure—Individuals with high blood pressure may find that they are also more susceptible to frequent or intense migraines. This doesn’t mean everyone with high blood pressure is at risk for migraines, but rather those who already have migraine problems may find their migraines are triggered and/or exacerbated by high blood pressure.
- Other Illnesses—Unfortunately, being ill in ways completely unrelated to migraines can trigger severe headaches. Anything that causes congestion or sinus pressure is a no-brainer, but things like ear infections, tooth aches, allergies, and a myriad other maladies may set off a round of migraines.
Eight Tips for Dealing with Migraines
- Sleep It Off—The absolute best way to deal with a migraine is to sleep it off. I know this isn’t always possible due to the demands of life, but give yourself some grace and sleep your migraines off whenever you can. If you’ve got a boss who is understanding and will let you take the time off, stay home and stay in bed. If you can hand off family or volunteer responsibilities to others in the midst of a migraine, then stay in bed and let people who love you temporarily pick up your slack.
- Medication—This is a tricky one and something you’ll want to approach with a doctor. Rather than give you specific advice concerning medications I’ll leave that to the professionals. What I will say, however, is please make sure you’ve got a doctor who is willing to work with you and find the best treatment for you. Some doctors only write a prescription for whichever migraine treatment is most popular at the moment and that’s that. Instead, you’ll want to take the time (several months) to work through alternatives and find which treatment does the most good. You’ll want to keep an eye on medication overuse as well.
- Ice Packs and Heating Pads—This is where knowing what type of headache you have becomes important. Why? Because choosing the wrong end of the temperature spectrum here can actually make your headache worse. For instance, if your migraine is triggered by muscular tension in your back, neck, or shoulders, then the use of a heating pad would likely help. However, if your migraine was triggered by vascular dilation (the blood vessels in your brain expanding), then using a heating pad will likely make it worse. This would be an instance where cold showers and ice packs are a better option.
- Food Diary—Learning your food triggers will go a long way toward helping you avoid many migraines. Keep a log of everything you eat for at least a month, and record your reactions to particular foods. When I say “everything,” I mean everything. For instance, if you have a salad or a sandwich, record every component of the meal separately. Don’t simply write down “salad,” but rather write down the ingredients—lettuce, tomatoes, onion, carrots, type of cheese, type of meat, type of dressing (including fat free/light/regular). You should even start keying in on additives such as artificial sweeteners, coloring, and potential allergens such as gluten, nuts, or dairy. This is how you’ll narrow down what might be causing some of your migraines, leading you to remove the offending foods from your diet altogether.
- Biofeedback—This is a fairly new one to me, but there are some biofeedback techniques you can try at home that may help you deal with the pain of a migraine and shorten the length of your migraines as well. You’ll want to investigate this with a professional, but one of the most common forms of biofeedback that can help you deal with migraines is to raise or lower the temperature of certain parts of the body. Again, this is where knowing what’s causing your migraines is important. For instance, I recently discovered that if my migraine is caused by vascular dilation, then I can soak my feet in hot water. This “redirects” my blood flow toward my feet and away from my head, lowering the pressure in my brain and easing my headache.
- Pressure Points—Though this idea will rarely help prevent or shorten the length of a migraine, knowing how and where to apply pressure on certain points of your body can help you temporarily deal with the pain. Applying pressure to the pulse points on the side of the forehead and neck can help, as well as applying pressure to the temples. Pressing on your forehead just between your eyebrows can alleviate some of your pain as well. A new practice (one that I haven’t done and likely won’t) is to get a daith piercing in your ear. While you might not opt for a piercing, applying pressure on the daith point of your ear’s cartilage might mitigate your pain. To help with the nausea often associated with migraines, I will apply pressure to my wrist or squeeze my ear lobes.
- Essential Oils—I’m relatively new to essential oil use, but I’ve become a believer after experiencing results for myself. Peppermint is one of the most effective oils you can use to help you deal with your migraines. Peppermint oil can be used orally in tea or as an additive to other foods. It can be used topically by diluting it in a carrier oil and rubbing it on your temples, forehead, and neck. You can also use it aromatherapy-style by rubbing it into your palms or placing it on a cotton ball and then inhaling, or you could try placing a few drops in a bowl of steaming water and breathing in the steam. Peppermint also helps lessen nausea, but it isn’t the only essential oil that’s great for migraines. As with the tips above, do some research and find what works best for you.
- Beneficial Sleep—Getting enough of the right types of sleep can go a long way toward helping you stave off frequent and intense headaches. Knowing how much sleep you need is vital, as is getting on some sort of sleep schedule if possible. Many people sleep better at night when the room is cool, and for migraine sufferers this can be even more important—a cool room can help prevent headaches caused by vascular dilation. Beyond all this, investing in a good bed and pillow are critical. Migraines caused by neck tension are often triggered by improper neck support and alignment during sleep.
These are a few of the things I’ve learned to help me prevent and deal with my migraines. What have you found that works? I’d love to hear about your ideas and experiences. Please share them in the comments below.
UPDATE: After more research into the kinds of migraines that I’ve been experiencing more frequently over the last year or so—migraines far different than the usual type in all the years before—I’ve learned about some new-to-me migraine causes and treatments.
Particular to my experience is something called occipital neuralgia—pain that is caused by injury, inflammation, or irritation of the occipital nerve that runs from the top of the spinal cord up through the scalp. This pain can be extremely intense, not only feeling like a being punched or squeezed at the back of your brain, but also producing pain that radiates through the head. It also usually causes—especially in my case—some pretty severe nausea, as well as light and sound sensitivity.
While investigating at-home remedies for occipital neuralgia, I stumbled across some new treatments I’ve not heard of before, two of which I’ve tried with some success.
First, is purchasing some capsaicin cream—in my case, a liquid roll-on. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes jalapeños and other peppers hot. Rubbing this stuff on your skin feels almost like you’re applying a sunburn, but once it soaks in deeper I offered true relief.
Second, is lidocaine cream, which sort of does the opposite of capsaicin. Lidocaine is an anesthetic, so you can see why such a cream could offer relief once it’s absorbed deeply into your skin.
One caveat to these two treatments is that you really can’t use them together. In fact, one day I was still hurting after a couple applications of the capsaicin, but my skin felt too raw to try it again. So, I used some lidocaine instead. Later in the day I tried the capsaicin again, but apparently the lidocaine was still in effect because I felt no burn at all from the capsaicin.
Lastly, I bought some old-fashioned aspirin to add to my OTC drug rotation. By itself, aspirin has rarely helped mitigate my migraines, but used in conjunction with the above treatments it adds to my overall relief.
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