When it comes to living with migraines, sometimes you’re willing to try anything to stop the pain. A pounding migraine can make you feel like you are losing control. It’s natural to want to get back in charge.
Some have gone to great lengths to quash the pain and other symptoms. From spraying cayenne pepper into their nose to strict food diets, there’s not much that hasn’t been tried to get a break from symptoms. Some complementary therapies for migraines have research backing them up. Others, not so much. So why do we give things that may not work a shot? And which are our best options?
Niesha Tapia, 30, of Fremont, CA, knows all too well what it feels like to be desperate for migraine relief. As a nurse, wife, and mom of three young children, Tapia says migraines impacted her life in a big way.
“My migraines went from weekly to almost daily. They were so painful,” Tapia says. “I had nausea and had to go to the ER a few times, they were so bad.”
To ease the pain, Tapia tried many over-the-counter medications as well as supplements like CoQ10 and magnesium. These supplements have been reported to help with migraines. Tapia also tried Botox, an injection that, while best known for its effect on wrinkles, is also FDA-approved to help prevent migraine in adults with chronic migraine. She stopped after not loving the results. “It changed the shape of my face a little bit,” Tapia says.
Jill Dehlin, 67, a health educator and executive board member of the National Headache Foundation, says she tried more than 60 medications from when her migraines started in her early 30s. Her migraine headaches got so bad that they caused her to exit her PhD program.
“I was willing to try anything to help my pain,” Dehlin says. “I went to acupuncture and it was one hour a week with no pain.” But acupuncture stopped working for her after a while.
Jan Brandes, MD, a Nashville neurologist who gets migraines, has seen patients try different things to find relief. “I think people with migraines are some of the most optimistic people,” she says. “When their migraines haven’t been properly treated or if they’ve had side effects, they’re willing to try other options.”
In olden days, folk remedies are said to have included everything from running around the house three times to asking a seventh child to blow in your ear, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Today, it’s more common to hear about “hacks,” especially involving diet.
“I have clients who come to me all the time who have any number of diet hacks for their migraines,” says Lizzy Swick, a registered dietitian in Montclair, NJ. She’s not talking about well-researched nutrition strategies that truly make a difference, like not letting yourself get hungry and identifying and avoiding foods that trigger migraine. It’s the strict (and unhealthy) plans or flimsy fads that are the issue.
“There are times I want to shut the internet down because it can be a harmful place of bad information,” says Swick, who also gets migraines.
Searching for solutions is normal. “We have this concept that it’s somehow our fault, [that] if we just did something different, we wouldn’t have migraine,” Brandes says. “We tell ourselves that if we dealt with stress better or any number of things, our migraines would disappear.”
But while certain changes may ease migraine pain, there is no cure. Brandes reminds people that migraine is a brain disorder.
“We used to treat epilepsy like we do migraines now,” Brandes says. “We thought the patient was doing something wrong to cause them. Now we know: It’s a disease. It’s not their fault.”
Is there any risk to trying something new or different for migraine pain? The answer isn’t so simple.
Some things like acupuncture or eating small meals throughout the day have been shown to help. Others, like herbs such as St. John’s wort and ginkgo biloba, may interact with some migraine medications.
“The slow and steady approach is not as sexy as something shiny and new on the internet,” Swick says. “Yet it doesn’t mean we should abandon age-old nutrition wisdom because we aren’t getting immediate results.”
“Trying therapies for your migraine may help and provide a sense of control,” Brandes says. “However, when treating your own condition, you could miss important health factors.”
For example, migraines, especially those with aura (typically a vision or other sensory disturbance that happens before or with a migraine), may be associated with an increased risk for stroke. For this reason, it’s important to see your doctor.
When you want to try something new for your migraine, ask your doctor:
- Have you heard about this product or approach?
- Does it work?
- Is there science behind it, and what is the quality of that research?
- Are there any side effects?
- Will it interact with my current meds?
If you find yourself bouncing from treatment to treatment and trying everything under the sun to curb your pain, some things may help.
Don’t discount medicine. It doesn’t have to be either/or with migraine help. There is a happy medium that includes both complementary and medical treatments. If you’re finding relief with herbs or diet changes, it is still important to have support from your doctor.
“Diet, as much as we wish it could be, can’t ever replace medication,” Swick says. “While food is foundational and it is one of the top pillars of health, diet alone is not going to be as powerful as working with your doctor to help you find the right medication that works for you.”
Find a doctor you trust. Does your doctor ask questions? Show concern for your pain? Try something else if the first thing doesn’t work? These are all questions Brandes and other experts suggest asking as you find the right doctor to treat your migraines.
See a specialist. While your primary doctor or OB/GYN may treat your migraine at first, it’s often helpful to see a headache specialist. Doctors who focus on migraine and other headaches or brain diseases are called neurologists. They can offer special treatment and support. Brandes suggests paying attention to how often your head hurts. “If you’re having more than two migraines per month, it’s time to take action.”
Keep a migraine journal. It might sound simple, but doctors look at patterns like time of day, location of migraine, pain level, and other factors to decide a treatment plan for you. It can provide helpful information. Many people only track pain and medications, but it’s a good idea to also keep notes on any supplements, acupuncture, and other approaches to explore how they affect your body. Dehlin suggests using apps like Migraine Buddy.
Don’t give up. You know the old saying: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. “We don’t have a cure yet for migraine, but there are things to minimize the impact,” Brandes says. “I’ve gone from feeling like I have to attack my migraines to one of ac
ceptance,” Swick says. “My No. 1 goal now is to be realistic and compassionate with my body.”