Illustration by Jenny Yu
A world without headaches—how great would that be? Unfortunately, 25 percent of women and 11 percent of men between ages 18-44 experience migraines, especially, for women, during menstruation. Though research is still ongoing, it seems that this is likely due to hormone level changes. The good news is that we dug deeper into the issue and gathered a few everyday tips for alleviating migraine pain.
For starters, how do you know when you’re actually experiencing a migraine as opposed to a headache? Dr. Jason Lerner, a pediatric neurologist at University of California, Los Angeles who treats migraines, says that the biggest difference between common headaches and migraines is the intensity. “Migraines can last from four hours to three days and [pain] can be unilateral, pulsating, or throbbing,” he says. “Physical activity makes it worse, even something as simple as walking up the stairs, often with nausea or vomiting. Lights or noise may bother you too.”
When it comes to medical treatment, Dr. Lerner explains the two types: “Abortive therapy is started right away [after you get a migraine], something as simple as Tylenol or Aleve, to stop the attack. Prophylactic medicine you take every day to prevent migraines.” Of course, which treatment you opt for depends on how much your daily routine is being affected, but the doctor admits that for preventing more severe migraines, “patients that I can get to do [home remedies] are much more successful than ones with medications.”
Of course, if you believe you have serious migraines, you’ll want a doctor’s confirmation and advice for lifestyle changes. In the meantime, here are five factors that can go a long way in preventing that splitting pain.
1. Better sleep schedules
Getting regular sleep can help decrease the number of migraines and the time it takes for the migraine go away. Strategies include having a set schedule for sleep—going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, including weekends. (The best amount of sleep for adolescents is at least seven hours.)
2. A good diet that avoids “food triggers”
As Dr. Lerner notes, “Certain foods make people more susceptible, such as red wine and cheese, but everyone is a little different.” It’s important to figure out what your trigger is and avoid them. A healthy diet is essential, because regular meals help the body’s nutrition level stay in balance and decrease physical stress on the body, which can provoke migraines. “I’ve had teenagers tell me that it’s not cool to eat lunch in school, so they’ll eat breakfast, skip lunch,” says Dr. Lerner. “Then by the time they get home, they have a headache.”
3. Stress relief techniques
You don’t need us to point out that stress is common among students—but we will emphasize that decreasing it will help with migraine pain. Most studies agree that acupuncture, which frequently comes up as a stress relief treatment, is better than none at all, but be wary of treatments that aren’t authentic acupuncture. There’s also massage therapy, which has been proven to improve sleep quality—it’s so relaxing, as long as you’re not ticklish!—and decrease the number of migraines one experiences.
4. Exercise, including yoga
Whenever you’re in pain, exercise may be the last thing on your mind. But it’s worth giving it a try, because aerobic exercise releases natural endorphins, which in turn reduces migraine severity. Aerobic exercise counts as anything that gets your heart rate up, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends a target heart rate 50-85 percent of your maximum (that’s 220 minus your age beats per minute). Another form of exercise, though not aerobic, that’s been shown to decrease the intensity and number of migraines is yoga. Bonus: that’ll also help you feel emotionally healthier, if it’s done for at least 3 months.
5. Vitamins and herbal supplements
The best-studied natural remedies are vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and ginger, both of which decrease the number of migraines people experience. Ginger also can act as an abortive agent during an acute episode. Butterbur has recently been highlighted as a migraine remedy as well, and Dr. Lerner notes that more and more people are starting to use the plant. The root extract form is believed to work best in promoting muscle relaxation and reducing inflammation when taken daily for three to four months. For an easy fix, try some ginger tea.