Many people think of a migraine as just a really bad headache. However, in reality, it is much more than that. A migraine is a debilitating neurological disease that comes in many shapes and sizes with varying causes, symptoms, and treatment options for relief.
Here we will explore some of the main differences between migraines and headaches. In addition, we will take a look at some frequently asked questions about migraines including “how long do migraines last” and most importantly, “how to get rid of a migraine”.
What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a headache and a migraine as the symptoms of a migraine can vary from person to person. In addition, there may be some symptoms that overlap and even seem almost identical at times.
However, in general, migraines are characterized as headaches that range in severity and are:
- Pulsating and affecting one side of the head
- Associated with nausea and sensitivity to light or sound
By contrast, common headaches, such as tension headaches are typically associated with:
- A dull feeling of tightness or pressure
- Bilateral or affecting both sides of the head
- Not associated with nausea and sensitivity to light or sound
In addition, migraines have a genetic component and seem to affect women more commonly than men.
However, it is important to remember that the symptoms of both a migraine and headache may vary from person to person making diagnosis difficult.
The American Migraine Foundation suggests that if you agree with some or many of the following statements below, it may be a migraine and you should think about seeing a doctor:
- Your head pain is moderate to severe and often intense. The pain may be hard to endure, affecting one or both sides of the head in the front or back.
- You feel the pain as a throbbing, pounding, or pulsating sensation.
- Your head pain gets worse with physical activity or any movement.
- The pain is severe enough to interfere with school, work, or other activities.
- You experience nausea and/or vomiting
- You become sensitive to light, noise, or smells.
- Your pain lasts anywhere from hours to several days.
How long does a migraine last?
Most migraines will last between 4-72 hours if left untreated. However, the duration, symptoms, and intensity of a migraine attack will vary from person to person.
Depending on the individual, during a migraine attack, someone may go through four stages during which symptoms may progress or diminish. These stages include prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome.
However, not everyone who has a migraine will go through all 4 stages.
The headache phase is the most painful and intense phase of a migraine. Postdrome, or a migraine hangover, follows the headache and is experienced by nearly 80% of migraine sufferers. Symptoms of postdrome include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a stiff neck, and a mild residual headache.
The best time to try to prevent a migraine from progressing and get rid of it quickly is when symptoms are mildest during the prodrome phase. In other words, stopping a migraine before it starts in the earliest phase is the best way to stop a migraine.
How To Get Rid Of A Migraine
Although there is no cure, there are a number of strategies for how to get rid of migraines when they strike. Here are some options for migraine treatment and symptom relief as well as how to prevent migraines before they start.
Medications for Migraines
The most effective way to get rid of a migraine is to catch it as early as possible, ideally in the prodrome phase. During the prodrome phase, migraine medication, such as triptans can be more effective at both preventing the onset of headaches and reducing headache severity.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, early signs of a migraine may include yawning, food cravings, and frequent urination, as well as mood changes, difficulty focusing, fatigue, stiffness in the neck and shoulders, insomnia, and nausea.
In addition to triptans, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several other prescription medications for the treatment of migraines. These include Reyvow (generic: lasmiditan) and Ubrelvy (generic: ubrogepant), which can help reduce pain or eliminate it completely within two hours.
Some over-the-counter migraine medication options are also available but may not help everyone. These include NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen. Two randomized, double-blind studies found that taking NSAIDs in combination with triptans was more effective at reducing migraine pain than either medication alone.
However, make sure you talk with your doctor before taking any of these medications to treat migraines as they can interact with other prescription or over-the-counter medications.
How to get rid of a migraine fast without medication
Not everyone tolerates migraine medication well, but other options do exist to help get rid of a migraine fast. Several FDA-approved prescription devices have been shown to be effective at treating migraines.
The Cefaly device can help with both acute treatment and prevention by sending tiny electrical impulses through the device to the Trigeminal nerve, a center of migraine pain.
Some home remedies may also be helpful in relieving migraine symptoms. These include cold or warm compresses, scalp massages, reducing light and sound, and ginger for nausea.
If you feel a migraine coming on, you can also attempt to prevent the progression and intensity of the migraine with behavioral changes. For instance, prioritizing sleep, practicing mindfulness meditation, and avoiding potential triggers.
How To Prevent Migraines
Taking steps to prevent migraines can help alleviate surprise attacks. This involves identifying and avoiding personal migraine triggers and managing stress. You can also benefit from putting a preventive care plan in place with your doctor, which may involve preventative medications and supplements.
Let’s take a look at these simple strategies for how to prevent migraines.
Identify Migraine Triggers
Migraines can be triggered by various factors including hormone changes, lack of food or sleep, drinking alcohol, caffeine withdrawal, certain odors or perfumes, smoke exposure, anxiety, and diet. When you know what your triggers are, you can more easily avoid them. This may help prevent the onset or severity of migraines.
Not everyone with migraines will have the same triggers, but some of the most common migraine food triggers include:
- Foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Foods with tyramine, including red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, figs, and certain beans
- Meats containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats)
- Peanuts and other nuts and seeds
- Processed, fermented, pickled, or marinated foods
It may help to keep a journal of food, activity, and symptoms. This way, you can identify personal triggers and make necessary lifestyle and diet adjustments. When you do, you may be able to prevent frequent migraines.
There is a strong association between stress and the onset, frequency, and severity of migraines. Although research isn’t clear as to how stress causes migraines, it does show that many migraine sufferers benefit from stress therapies, such as relaxation therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and biofeedback.
Trying to eliminate stress can feel impossible and even add to feelings of anxiety. Rather, try to find simple daily habits that naturally reduce anxiety, such as meditation or exercise. Regardless of how you manage stress, doing so may help prevent recurring migraines.
Preventative Migraine Medication
For those who have frequent, long-lasting, or debilitating migraines, the use of preventative medication may help. There are many medications that are used to prevent the frequency and severity of migraines, such as antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and beta-blockers.
However, the way in which they work to prevent migraines can be very different. These medications aren’t suitable for everyone, so it’s essential to discuss the options with your doctor to find the right preventative migraine medication for you.
Talk to Your Doctor About Supplements
In addition to lifestyle interventions and preventative medication, your doctor may recommend supplements. Specific supplements may help balance nutrients and hormones in the body and, thus, prevent the onset of migraines. For instance, some research suggests that melatonin may be beneficial for migraine prevention as adults with chronic migraine have lower melatonin levels than those with episodic migraine.
Other common supplements your doctor may recommend for migraine include riboflavin, coenzyme Q10, magnesium, and feverfew. Discuss the options with your doctor to decide whether supplements are right for you.
Along with the rest of your care team, they can help guide you to the right supplements, if necessary.
How To Cure A Migraine Permanently
At the moment, there is no way to cure a migraine permanently. However, the disease can be managed with the right treatment and prevention strategies.
To review, this includes working with a trusted team of healthcare professionals including your primary care physician to:
- Establish a treatment plan to handle attacks when they occur
- Develop a prevention strategy to reduce attacks before they happen
Talk with your doctor to figure out what the best strategy is for you based on your individual circumstances and lifestyle.