If you were to guess what the third most prevalent disease in the world is, what would you say? Asthma? Diabetes? Epilepsy?
Actually, the correct answer is migraine, a neurological disease that causes throbbing, debilitating headaches. Nearly 15 percent of the world’s population suffers from migraines — affecting more people than asthma, diabetes and epilepsy combined, according to the Migraine Trust, a nonprofit in the United Kingdom that promotes migraine research.
Recent medical advances related to migraines are promising. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2018 approved a drug, Aimovig, aimed at preventing migraines, and similar drugs are in the works.
For the estimated 37 million Americans who struggle with migraines and their symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and speech difficulties, Aimovig could be a godsend. However, Aimovig and other preventative medications are meant only for those sufferers who regularly cope with numerous migraines.
So, what options are left for somebody whose migraines aren’t as frequent, or who can’t afford prescription medications or wants to avoid taking them?
Aside from pain relievers and other medical options, several alternatives are available. Here are eight of them.
A study published in 2008 found that acupuncture, coupled with routine care, can decrease the duration and intensity of pain and improve the quality of life of people with migraines and other headaches. Meanwhile, a 2016 scientific review of 22 clinical trials suggested that at least six acupuncture sessions could reduce the frequency of migraines in some patients.
The American Migraine Foundation says that for treatment of migraines, an acupuncturist will place needles at specific pressure points, typically along a person’s back or neck. Sometimes, this is paired with a gentle head massage. Each treatment lasts about an hour, and at least six sessions are recommended.
The foundation says it’s not known precisely how acupuncture benefits migraine sufferers, but it’s thought that it activates pathways in the brain that are responsible for turning off pain.
2. Tinted glasses
A small study of children who had migraines showed that wearing special rose-tinted glasses decreased the frequency of their headaches. The study was published in 1991.
Greg Bullock, marketing manager at TheraSpecs, a producer of specially tinted eyewear for migraine sufferers, says this eyewear is particularly effective for people whose attacks are triggered by light, such as fluorescent light or digital-screen light. The glasses block certain wavelengths of blue and green light that can prompt migraines.
A study published in 2010 showed that among 37 migraine sufferers, 26 of them (70 percent) saw at least a 50 percent reduction in the frequency of headaches thanks to biofeedback. The patients underwent an average of 40 neurofeedback sessions in tandem with thermal biofeedback.
“This process includes the use of electronic monitoring to identify specific physiological responses and ultimately develop techniques for managing them,” Bullock says.
4. Cold therapy
Applying an ice pack around the neck at the onset of a migraine “significantly reduced” pain for the majority of the 55 migraine sufferers who participated in a study published in 2013.
An earlier study, conducted in 2006, showed that at least half of the 26 migraine sufferers benefited — in the form of minimized pain — from treatment with a frozen “cap” placed on the head.
“Cold application alone may be effective in some patients suffering from migraine attacks,” the second study concluded.
In a 2007 study of 77 migraine patients, the frequency and pain of their headaches declined after they did yoga for three months. Medication usage, anxiety and depression also decreased. A similar study published seven years later also demonstrated that yoga is an effective treatment for migraines; 60 patients participated in this study.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, more research is needed about the practice of yoga for migraine relief. However, studies that have been carried out “suggest that yoga could be very helpful in both treating migraines and the disability associated with migraines,” the foundation says.
Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse who founded the natural health resource RemediesForMe.com, says getting an adequate amount and adequate quality of shut-eye can help prevent the onset of a migraine. Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each day.
“Migraine may be both caused and relieved by sleep, as well as being a cause of too much or too little sleep,” according to the Migraine Trust.
Food and migraines have a complicated relationship. What you eat can both help and harm a migraine sufferer.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says a plethora of foods can trigger migraines. These include dairy products, chocolate, eggs, meat, citrus fruits, wheat, nuts, tomatoes, apples and bananas, as well as alcohol, caffeinated drinks and aspartame (NutraSweet).
But, the committee says, some foods typically don’t contribute to migraines. Examples are:
- Rice (especially brown rice).
- Cooked green vegetables like broccoli and spinach.
- Cooked orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes.
- Cooked yellow vegetables like summer squash.
- Cooked or dried non-citrus fruits, including cherries, cranberries, pears and prunes.
“If you’re not eating a balanced diet with plenty of plants, work toward changing this. Consuming less processed foods and more whole foods will do wonders for your body and help reduce migraines,” says Sunny Brigham, a board-certified nutrition specialist.
A 2017 analysis of 12 research studies underscores Brigham’s point. The analysis indicated that being overweight or underweight is associated with a higher migraine risk.
The author of the analysis, Dr. B. Lee Peterlin of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says in a news release: “More research is needed to determine whether efforts to help people lose or gain weight could lower their risk for migraine.”
Exercise does a body good, and this is certainly true for migraine sufferers.
A 2003 study showed that regular long-term aerobic exercise reduced the severity, frequency and duration of migraine pain. Forty women with general migraine symptoms were included in the study.
While exercise can be an effective therapy for migraines, “it’s important to listen to what your body needs at the moment,” says Lee, the registered nurse. “Don’t exercise when you currently have a migraine attack, because it can aggravate the severity of the headache even more.”