Lisa Jacobson was standing in her kitchen, cooking dinner and wearing some unusual garb -- sunglasses and earplugs. She needed to block out the light and subdue the noise that aggravated the vicious migraine stabbing at her eye.
It wasn't the first time the 56-year-old had donned these items. She started having daily migraines 25 years ago. But this evening was different. This time, the pain actually went away.
"It was like a black-and-white film turning into technicolor," says Jacobson, founder of The Daily Migraine, a web site for people with chronic migraines.
Lifestyle changes were key in her recovery. She had recently revved-up her exercise routine, bought a mouth guard to reduce stress on her jaw, and had gotten rid of a lot of medications. These simple tactics were game-changers for Jacobson.
If you deal with migraines, you might want to try them along with a few other ideas.
Take Fewer Meds
At the height of her migraines, Jacobson was taking triptans, a potent prescription drug, every 6 to 12 hours. But her headaches were only getting worse. She was probably having what's known as a "rebound" headache. That’s when too many migraine meds add to your problem instead of helping it.
Major culprits are over-the-counter medications, especially those that have caffeine or multiple ingredients.
"Reaching for the pills is a negative lifestyle factor that brings short-term relief" and makes headaches worse in the long run, says Richard Lipton, MD, director, Montefiore Headache Center in New York. If you're taking drugs to treat pain more than twice a week, think about cutting down. Ask your doctor about the right plan for you.
Don't Eat Chocolate in the Rain
Keep a diary to see what sets you off and, if nothing seems obvious, look for "coincidences." Once you've found any single, double, or triple triggers, it’s easier to avoid them.
For example, you can block out offending light with sunglasses (including some that are specially made for people who have regular migraines), anti-glare screens on your computer, and using the right light bulb. You can dress in layers to adjust to temperature changes that may trigger headaches. You can even prevent migraines by avoiding motion sickness. For instance, sit in the front seat and don’t read in the car. If you get woozy during 3-D movies, skip the glasses.
But don’t overdo it, doctors say. "It's important to realize not every trigger is specific for that person," says Lawrence C. Newman, MD, president of the American Headache Society. "Don't go changing your life by avoiding everything."
Once Jacobson looked back on her migraines, she discovered that the only days she didn't have a headache were the ones when she was on vacation. Why? She wasn't checking her email or taking work calls. In other words, she wasn't stressed.
Stress is a major migraine culprit. But often, you don't know what's happening until it’s over and you're relaxing. This is the so-called "letdown" headache. "Students with migraine often make it through the big test, then get a headache the next day," Lipton says. "Lawyers make it through the big trial or big deposition."
If you have stressful things in your life that you can change, change them. If not, change how you react to what stresses you. "The way stress gets translated into physiology is through perception," Lipton says. "Things are neither stressful nor not stressful; but thinking makes them so."
Don't Sleep In
Too little sleep can trigger a migraine. So can too much.
"It's not necessarily that you're sleeping too much or too little," Newman says. "It's changes in sleep patterns. We want to get 7 to 8 hours every night."
You want to get those hours in the same time frame every day. And, aim to wake up and go to bed at the same times. If you usually get out of bed at 7 a.m., lounging until 10 on a Saturday could ruin your weekend. You might also end up with a caffeine-withdrawal headache when you miss your regular morning cup.
It's just as important to eat at the same time every day. When you skip meals, fast, or diet often, you can trigger headaches.
Visit the Dentist
Some headaches, including some migraines, stem from an overworked jaw. For example, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) hinges your jaw to your skull. You stress it when you grind your teeth at night, clench your jaw during the day, or chew too much gum. These migraines typically show up in the morning.
During the day, you can relieve them with jaw-stretching exercises. You can also take smaller bites, and suck on mints instead of chewing gum.
When it comes to sleep, that’s a different matter. You may need a visit to the dentist, who can fit you with a night guard.