I’m the go-to gal when it comes to headache and migraine advice in my circles (lucky me!). Friends, family and co-workers know I’ve been dealing with them since forever, and often see me using some of my tricks/products while at home or traveling. Since I’ve had a recent influx in requests for advice and links to those products, it was high time for me to put this post together.
I get a variety of different headaches and migraines, and have since I was a little kid. Over the years I’ve learned ways to manage them—prevention, avoiding escalation, and recovering from them—by listening to my body, my doctors, and others who have been willing to keep an open mind and try different things to do so. I’m not talking about medications here, since that’s between you and your doctor.*
So first, I HIGHLY recommend reading this quick piece about the timeline of migraines, so you know what a prodrome and postdrome, and all the other parts of the episodes are. It can help with prevention, treatment, and recovery.
Now, here are some of my favorite non-pill remedies.**
(Just don’t forget: I am no replacement for a good doctor who understands the nuances of headache and migraine care as well as your personal medical history.)
HEADACHE AND MIGRAINE PREVENTION
Water Water Water
Not bubbly water or water with flavoring or drinks that happen to have a splash of water in them. Water. Period. When I wake up, I chug 8-16oz before I even get out of bed. Then I continue drinking enough throughout the day that my urine is almost colorless (I carry it around in this, which makes both my primary care physician and my neurologist happy to see because they know I fill it at least twice a day). If you ask anyone who knows me well to tell you something about me, they’ll quite likely say, “She’s tall and she drinks a LOT of water.” Both are true.
Tip: If you end up on migraine-prevention meds, some of them require a certain amount of water consumption each day to prevent side effects from the meds.
I have a cup of coffee upon waking and one more around 2PM. That’s it. The trick here is to consume the same amount around the same time every day, and not loaded with all sorts of gobbledygook in it. Just, you know, regular coffee. (For some people, avoiding all caffeine is key, but this works for my body/head.)
Every night before I go to bed, I do at least three sun salutations (a series of yoga poses, which you can see here) and some stretching. The goal is to loosen the shoulders, neck, back and shake out all tension possible. Relax your face and jaw, too, by opening your mouth wide, moving your jaw left and right to ease any tightness. Remaining flexible has been a big help in prevention, for me.
Since I sit at my desk writing all day, I also set a timer at 45 minute intervals to remind me to get up and move around, stretch, run up and down the stairs, do jumping jacks or a load of laundry—something to keep me from getting too stiff.
Using Screens with a Naturally Upright Neck
My laptop sits atop a box on my desk, so when I sit in my chair my neck is straight and my shoulders loose when I look at the screen. When I read my phone, I hold it up in front of my face, rather than drop my head down to read a screen held at chest-level. (“Tech neck” is a real thing that causes headaches and more, for all the looking down we do while using technology puts pressure on our discs and can even cause long-term problems.)
Dim the Screens to Prevent Eye Strain
I turn up the warmth and down the brightness on my phone, tablet and TV. Check your devices’ and TV’s screen settings to adjust.
While I wear Rx glasses always, people who don’t can also try the inexpensive blue light blocking non-Rx glasses while on the computer/looking at screens. Even my kids use them, and it really helps! Here are some in clear, a speckled design, and black.
Get Your Vision Checked
An old eyeglass prescription, need for “readers,” or even a bent pair of eyeglasses that makes the right prescription sit incorrectly can cause headaches and migraines. So get those eyes checked every year.
Listen to Your Body
I pay attention to the signals it gives me: hunger, fullness, cravings, needs for sleep, an antsiness to get up and get moving. Oftentimes we think we know best—the latest thing we read in a magazine, a determination to be whatever—but, really, our bodies are pretty smart. So listen to it before it gets mad at you and shuts everything down with a debilitating migraine.
Go Through the Migraine-Triggering Foods List
When a neurologist starts treating you, one of the first things they do is hand over a list of foods that can trigger migraines and keep a food diary. Get your own copy and make your way through it. Look for patterns, like whether you get a migraine more often after eating italian subs or bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches than not. Try to avoid the foods that trigger your body. If you do eat one, take some other precautions to try to prevent piling on triggers.
Pay Attention to Your Surroundings
Is a big storm or weather change coming? Do you have a stressful event coming up? Travel? Your period on its way? Keep an eye out for the kinds of things that can trigger a headache/migraine and prepare for them, take extra care of yourself before/during them.
I have found that keeping things level (as in, not extreme) helps maintain a nice balance. All the different diets and fads and food crazes (eat all of this this, none of this, chug this tea throughout the day, starve yourself for hours, eat every 10 minutes—whatever the concept of the moment is) have one thing in common: lots of rules. Cans and cannots. Extremes. Not jumping on those bandwagons keeps my blood sugar, eating habits, input and output regular, routine, level—and my head is grateful for not only the balance, but for not having to go through the exhaustion of trying to force myself to live according to someone else’s financially-motivated plan that does not take my individual needs into account.
I Deal with My Shizzle
Good health in all the ways: physical, mental, social. I exercise reasonably regularly, eat a diet that balances healthy and happy (i.e., I don’t do deprivation), manage stress, seek counsel/therapy when I can’t handle something on my own, go to regular doctor appointments, enjoy my loved ones, listen to my needs and address them accordingly. In other words, I make my overall wellbeing a priority. Sounds obvious, but it’s not.
Interestingly enough, I have noticed that annual physicals tend to be a big part of my migraine management, because my Primary Care Physician notices changes in my bloodwork, health, weight, lifestyle, etc. that I may not, and sometimes even little things like her having me take a vitamin supplement or add a particular fruit/vegetable to my diet every day will fix a depletion and decrease my migraine susceptibility. So make a point to get those annual physicals on the calendar!
When I’m Feeling Migraine Susceptible or Sense One Coming On
Loosen Up the Neck/Shoulder Muscles
I use a heated shoulder wrap like this or take a hot shower with the firmest pressure and blast away any tension in my upper back, shoulders or neck. If I’m able to, I’ll even pop into a nail salon to get one of those “$10 for 10 minutes” chair massages, letting the person know I am trying to ward off a migraine. They know what to do, and oftentimes this will stop it in its tracks.
Epsom salt baths help when there is tightness in the shoulders and/or neck area. Get a bag of unscented epsom salts like this (every grocery store and pharmacy carries it), pour generously into the tub, and lay yourself in a warm bath so your back/neck is straight and relaxed, floating in a straight line. Let the warmth and salts soak in until things loosen up, hopefully relieving some of the cause of the migraine.
Scarves are my friends. I have them everywhere, and often can be seen wearing them year-round (these $8-10 ones are my obsession, I have them in so! many! colors!). Cozy, relaxed neck/shoulders can be key to preventing a tension headache—especially if you are someone who lifts their shoulders up to their ears when chilly or stressed.
Get in Alignment
I place this lightweight, inexpensive thing under my neck while lying on the floor. It puts my neck back into the right curve/shape. After 10-15 minutes, I slowly stretch, getting myself back into alignment. I was not a believer in this one until I tried it. (Also a great thing for “tech neck.”) I cannot tell you how many people I have gifted this to, who genuinely appreciated it after giving it a try.
The smell of peppermint has been shown to help headache sufferers (and even helps with the nausea if you get that with your migraines). I either dab or roll peppermint oil onto my temples and the back of my neck, then hold the bottle under my nose to sloooooowly breath in the scent for a minute.
Darken All the Things
During the day: a baseball cap, low lights, dark sheets over windows/room darkening curtains, sunglasses and any necessary screens dimmed to the lowest setting possible. At night: sleep with bubble eyeshades that block all the light but don’t smoosh against your eyeballs. Light can trigger migraines (and the pain-in-the-butt aura migraines, which can temporarily blind me until my prescription medications kick in), so darkness is my friend.
Not to state the obvious, but once I actually do have a headache/migraine, some of these preventative measures can also help in remedying them.
Headache Hat/Migraine Hat
The migraine hat I have is a soft and stretchy band with a special curved ice pack that goes inside (plus a spare). I keep this all in the freezer in its satin bag, so when a migraine hits I can wrap my head up as tight as I need it to be. The first ice pack loses its cool in about 3 hours, so then I can pop it out, replace it with the cold one from the freezer, and put the melted one back in to freeze again. It’s incredible, this thing. You can even pull it down over your eyebrows or put it over your cheekbones for sinus pain. (I have used actual ice packs and those eye shade-looking things that are frozen, and neither have the impact of this hat. I wish I knew it existed sooner!)
The one I have by Migraine Hat isn’t always available, but this one and this one look very similar in that they have velcro in order to adjust how tight/loose you want it to be, and have reusable ice packs to remove and freeze while you’re using the backup ice pack.
Cooling Gel Patches
Sometimes I get headaches/migraines while on the road. These cooling gel patches travel really well, and stay cool even without refrigeration (though I do stash a couple in the fridge for bonus chill). Simply take out of the packaging and stick to your forehead for that cool relief. Your skin needs to be clean for them to stick well, and they work best of you’re horizontal.
Acupressure / Acupuncture
Acupuncture and acupressure treatments from a professional have helped me a lot in the past, and are now often covered by insurance (ask your PCP for a referral for an acupuncturist or a physical therapist trained in acupressure). If you can’t get to an appointment, I have found these wearable acupressure ear seeds to be a nice option. My teenager uses the illustrated guide to place them on my ear — it’s like a tiny seed in the middle of a tiny stick-on bandage — over the pressure points to help my kind of migraine, and I keep them on for a few days, pressing on them now and again to give myself little treatments throughout the day.
Another nice pressure point treatment is to squeeze the spot at the top of the web between your thumb and pointer finger. To help make that easier, I sometimes wear one of these Aculief “wearable acupressure” thingies not only to keep a little pressure on it for longer periods, but also to make squeezing the right spot easier when I’m drowsy/weak with a migraine.
Doses of Caffeine
When it’s a tension headache or migraine caused by one, I’ll dose myself with shot-sized drinks of black coffee every 30-45 minutes (with large glasses of water in between) over a few hours, rather than drink one full cup in a sitting. It keeps things constricted while helping certain painkillers work more efficiently. (Caffeine can also make some headaches worse, so you’ll have to see how this plays out for you.)
It is hard to explain, but sometimes when you have a headache/migraine, no sound at all can make it worse. The white noise of a gentle sound machine (or app) can help, as can sitting in a warm shower with the shhhhhh of the water (bonus: use that shower to ease any tension on your neck, back or shoulders).
Getting to a spa is likely tricky when in this much pain (not to mention expensive), so I was given a chair massager very close to this one years ago as a Christmas gift: it is a huge help. Turning on the heat and letting the shiatsu knead those knots on either side of my spine can take the edge off. Plus, it’s a white noise that’s pleasantly distracting and it turns off when it’s time, so you don’t go for too long while zoned out in migraine land.
If I’m too unwell to sit up in a chair, I’ll steal my husband’s smaller shiatsu neck/shoulder massager to get any knots there or down under my shoulder blades, along my spine out while lying down.
Take a nap. Go to bed early. Sleep in. If you share a bedroom with someone, go to another room where you can be alone, assuring an uninterrupted rest that your body needs (stick a note on the door that you’re in there sleeping off a migraine to increase the odds of the “uninterrupted” goal). Even a loving, understanding partner/child can unknowingly wake you up, so it is 100% okay to do this for your heath.
A Quick Medication Trick
This is a good one for those of us who either wear glasses/contacts or sometimes need someone else to grab our migraine medications for us. Get a big, bold Sharpie and write “M” on the top of the bottle cap and across the label. If you have more than one kind, do one in red and one in blue, or note the difference (for example, if you say, “Grab the one that just says ‘M’,” or “get the one that says ‘aura migraines’ in red” your partner will be able to help get you what you need when your vision is blurry or it’s too hard to process information like that.)
I also have a bin in which I keep all my migraine-associated stuff, so there aren’t bottles of these important meds floating around the house. I can, while in pain, clearly instruct someone how to find exactly what I need and get it to me, or stumble my way to this one spot and get everything I need to feel better.
Patience with Recovery
The day (or so) after a migraine, I will feel in a bit of a fog. It’s like the bruise after a hit: leftover tenderness that needs a bit of TLC for a full recovery. So I don’t rush into things feeling bad about missing out due to a migraine. I explain myself, take it slow, and keep up with the preventative stuff to make sure I stay on the path to headache-free land.
I think I covered everything, and hope this helps you!
* I absolutely recommend you keep an ongoing conversation with your doctor about your headaches, for they will likely change over time—as do our bodies and lifestyles. Medications are always changing. My arsenal of meds includes OTC and prescription, old favorites and new remedies, and it is always evolving. Migraines and headaches can also be a sign of other health matters that need to be addressed, so don’t keep that pain to yourself!
** Affiliate links were used in this to make it easier for you to find exactly what I am recommending, so any items purchased via those links will results in a (very) small percentage going to me. This does not in ANY way influence which products I recommended.
Kim Bongiorno is an author, full time freelance writer, and the blogger behind Let Me Start By Saying. Learn more by connecting with her on: Facebook · Twitter · Instagram · Goodreads · Amazon.com · BookBub · Newsletter · Book Announcement Mailing List