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Self-Care for Chronic Migraine

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 18, 2022

It’s hard to work, see friends, or do much of anything when you are in the throes of a bad migraine attack. That’s why preventing them -- or decreasing the number of headaches you have -- will improve your life in so many ways.

This is especially important if you have migraines like these:

  • High-frequency episodic migraine: You get headaches 10-14 days each month.
  • Chronic migraine: You live with a migraine most of the time -- 15 or more times a month.

Typical treatment may mean taking two different kinds of medicine: one to keep attacks from happening, and the other you take during a migraine to ease the pain and keep it from getting worse.

But when headaches come fast and furious you need a plan that doesn’t rely on pills alone. A good self-care routine can help pump the brakes on migraine.

Sow SEEDS of Success

Migraine is a nervous system disorder that appears to be hereditary. That means it’s passed down through your family. You can’t change your genes but you can make chronic or high-frequency migraines easier to deal with by keeping a regular daily schedule. It’s something migraine experts call “SEEDS.”

S is for Sleep. One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule. That means go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time, even on weekends. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep.

Try these tips to get the shut-eye you need:

  • Set the mood. Do things that tell your body that it’s time for bed. Draw a warm, relaxing bath, read a book, or listen to some soothing music.
  • Make your bedroom a soft place to land. Make sure your mattress, pillow, and bedding are comfortable. Dim the lights and close the blinds.
  • Turn down the heat. A cooler bedroom is typically more sleep-friendly. Between 60 and 67 F is ideal.

E is for Exercise. Regular exercise raises natural pain-killing hormones called endorphins. It can also relieve stress, fight anxiety and depression, and help with sleep.

Ideally, a good routine includes cardio like walking or swimming, strength training to build muscle, and flexibility training like yoga. Try to work in exercise most days of the week. Set aside time in your schedule so you’re not tempted to skip it.

Start slowly and gradually add more minutes of movement if you’re new to exercise. Of course, talk to your doctor first to make sure you’re healthy enough to start.

E is for Eat, too. It’s important to keep your blood sugar steady, so don’t skip meals. Ask your doctor if eating five or six small meals may help you. Avoid heavily processed foods or those you think may make your symptoms worse.

There’s no solid proof that a particular food causes symptoms, but some may be linked to migraines, including:

  • The artificial sweetener aspartame
  • Chocolate
  • The additive MSG (monosodium glutamate), found in seasonings, condiments, and fast food (including Chinese dishes)
  • Processed meats with sulfites, like bacon and salami
  • Alcohol (especially red wines)

Caffeine is a double-edged sword. A little can stop a headache; too much can bring on one. So, moderation is key. If you drink coffee, for example, limit yourself to one or two cups a day. If you’re used to a morning cup of joe, don’t skip it. Caffeine withdrawal can set off a headache.

D is for Dehydration. Even mild dehydration can cause head pain. In general, aim to drink about 2 liters of water a day, unless your doctor has told you to drink more or less fluids. Carry a water bottle to sip on. Drinking water may be all it takes to stop a migraine in its tracks.

S is for Stress Reduction. You can’t avoid all stress. Work deadlines, family and financial problems, and personal loss are part of life. And stress can cause headaches. In fact, 50% to 70% of people with migraines say stress is linked to their symptoms. Use these tools to help you deal with stress:

  • Take slow deep breaths
  • Learn meditation
  • Focus your mind on a relaxing, calming image
  • Exercise

Target Triggers

Building a good self-care routine through SEEDS can help you deal with migraine triggers better.

Triggers are things that set off a migraine or make it worse. Other common migraine triggers and ways to handle them include:

  • Light. Wear sunglasses outside and stay away from fluorescent or flickering lights inside.
  • Strong smells. As much as possible, avoid perfumes, smelly chemicals, and strong food odors.
  • Weather. You can’t control heat, humidity, storms, or sudden weather changes. But you can tweak your routine. Stay in the air conditioning as much as possible when it’s hot. Go out in the cooler mornings or evenings.
  • Too much medicine. Pain pills are a catch-22 when you have chronic migraines. They certainly can make you feel better, but using them too much can lead to more headaches. Talk to your doctor about how to better manage your migraines if you reach for pain pills more than 10-15 times a month. About half of people with chronic migraines get much better when they are “weaned off” overused medication and focus on prevention and other treatments instead.

Hormone changes are a huge trigger for women, especially. You may get migraine symptoms around your monthly period. “Menstrual migraine” can also involve nausea or vomiting. Talk to your doctor about how to help prevent hormone-triggered migraines.

If you don’t know what triggers frequent and chronic migraines, start a diary. Note the days you had headaches and how bad they were. Record what you ate and drank, medications you took, what the weather was like, sleep habits, etc. You might be able to spot a pattern and pinpoint what causes your pain.

You can either simply write all this down or download a smartphone app.

Think Outside the Pill Box

Self-care can also include some approaches you may not have considered:

Acupuncture. This is an ancient Chinese treatment that uses needles placed in certain parts of the body. It’s believed to disrupt pain signals. In a review of almost two dozen scientific studies, acupuncture reduced the frequency of migraines by at least half in about 60% of people in the studies. That is similar to the effect of medicine used to prevent migraines.

Don’t expect results overnight. It could take at least six sessions for it to work.

Dietary supplements. Check with your doctor before adding any herbs or supplements. Some may interact with medications you take or could hurt you if you have other health conditions.

But these have been shown to keep migraines from happening or reduce the number of headache days you have:

  • The mineral magnesium (400-600 mg/day)
  • The vitamin riboflavin (400 mg/day)
  • An antioxidant called coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) (300 mg/day)

Heat and cold therapy. Try this the next time you feel a migraine coming on: Put a cold pack on your neck and forehead. Meanwhile, put your hands and feet into hot water (as hot as you can stand). This draws blood away from your head and into your extremities, which can ease pain. Because of your chronic condition, it may not be possible to do this every time you have a migraine. But it’s a good idea to keep a lot of cold packs handy.

Creative solutions. Painting, knitting, writing, woodworking, and more can give you an outlet to relieve stress. Cooking and baking can help you unwind, have a more nutritious diet, and even pinpoint food triggers.

Open and honest communication with your health care provider is part of self-care, too. Tell your doctor if your treatment plan isn’t working. Together, you can brainstorm some ways to find relief.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Migraine Foundation: “The Basics of Chronic Migraine,” “What is a Migraine?” “Exercise and Migraine,” “Diet and Headache Control,” “Understanding Caffeine Headaches,” “Top 10 Migraine Triggers and How to Deal with Them,” “Headache Hygiene: What Is It?” “What is Medication Overuse Headache?” “What Is the Relationship Between Hormones and Migraine?” “Headache Journals: Tracking Your Migraine,” “Acupuncture and Migraine: Finding a Combination that Sticks,” “Nutraceuticals for Migraine,” “Magnesium,” “Migraine and Self-Care.”

Mayo Clinic: “‘SEEDS’ for success in migraine management,” “How much water should you drink every day?”

Sleep Health (2015): “National Sleep Foundation's sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary.”

National Sleep Foundation: “10 Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep,” “Four Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep.”

Michele Renee, Doctor of Chiropractic, director of integrative care, Northwestern Health Sciences University, Bloomington, MN.

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