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17 ways to relieve migraine pain fast, according to experts

Ice packs, eye masks, breathing exercises and more tricks to reduce the pain of a migraine attack.

When you're in the middle of a migraine attack, you want instant relief. And while medications are often the most effective way to stop migraine pain, there is still a place for other tricks and home remedies in your headache treatment plan.

"Home remedies are important, especially to avoid the overreliance on prescription therapies and even over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen," Dr. Christina Graley, a neurologist specializing in headache medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells TODAY.com.

Using those medications too frequently or on too many days in a row puts you at risk for overuse headaches (also sometimes called "rebound" headaches), she explains.

In other cases, medications cause side effects, such as drowsiness, that make them challenging to take during a workday, for instance. Non-medication home remedies can provide relief, especially when drug treatments aren't an appropriate option or for patients who are trying to "avoid drug therapy altogether," Graley says.

Additionally, it can be helpful to add non-medication options while you're working on implementing lifestyle changes that will help reduce migraine frequency in the long term, she says.

Generally, these tricks are used "as an adjunct to medication treatments to help get rid of a migraine when you have one," Dr. Susan Broner, neurologist and director of the headache program at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells TODAY.com.

They can be helpful when you're waiting for medication to kick in or early on in your migraine treatment journey when you're still figuring out the most effective strategy for you.

"As an add-on, they can be really helpful," Broner says. "And there's actually science behind why they work." 

How migraine pain works:

"Migraine is an inherited neurological disorder," Broner says, "and it's a dysfunction of pain pathways within the brain."

One part of the pain-related circuit affected during a migraine attack, the trigeminal nerve complex, has a "whole bunch of sensory inputs from the face and head and neck," Broner explains. So, when you put something on your neck — an ice pack or warm compress, for instance — the nerve endings in that area are "bringing back signals deep into the brain... to calm things down a bit temporarily," she says.  

That's another reason why it's so important to treat migraine-related pain early and effectively. During a migraine attack or, among people with chronic migraine, even between attacks, you may develop what's called central sensitization, Broner says.

When you're in this state, normal sensations (like brushing your hair) may be painful as your nerves become more sensitive. Changes in sensory processing may also help explain why some people report that light, sound and certain smells exacerbate their migraine attacks, Graley adds.

Part of creating a treatment strategy for migraine involves reducing and preventing central sensitization because when that kicks in, "it's harder to treat migraines and certain medications don't work as well," Broner explains. 

Ahead, discover the at-home treatments solutions that will bring you relief.

Home remedies for migraine headache pain:

Ice cap

Both Broner and Graley say their patients have had luck using ice hats, which are essentially ice packs worn around the head.

"Migraine comes with a lot of scalp pain and nerve pain," Graley says, "and the ice actually helps those nerves feed back into the brain and decrease pain signal transmission."

Blue light filters

Some of Graley's patients also find blue light filters on their devices or blue light-filtering glasses can help relieve pain. There's some evidence to suggest that blue light exposure can make migraine attacks worse, Graley says, but experts aren't quite sure why.

Eye mask

During a migraine attack, many people become sensitive to light, which can exacerbate the pain. While migraine technically isn't a sensory processing disorder, "it does cause some heightened sensory processing," Graley explains. "So eliminating the sound and light that's coming into your senses is helpful."

Try taking a few minutes to rest with an eye mask to temporarily block the light.

Earplugs

Similarly, people often report being more sensitive to sounds during a migraine attack. So dampening sound with earplugs or noise-canceling headphones can help reduce pain associated with sound during that time.

Rest in a dark, quiet room

Eliminate light and sound by taking time to rest in a quiet, dark room.

"Most of us work a 40-hour-a-week job, so it can be difficult to isolate yourself in those in those instances," Graley says. "But (the value of) getting into a dark, quiet room and resting definitely cannot be overstated."

Warm compress

Experts believe a warm compress on the head or neck works the same way that an ice pack does to interrupt and dampen pain signals.

"I tell my patients (to use) heat or ice, whatever makes you feel better," Graley says, "because, literally, that's what it comes down to; Some patients prefer cold and some patients prefer warm."

Broner agrees: "It depends on what feels good. There's no one right approach," she says, adding that some patients may even use both ice and heat at the same time on different areas of their scalp.

Warm bath or shower

Some people like to take a warm bath or shower when they're dealing with a headache, Broner says, and it works the same way that a warm or cold compress does. "It's that extra peripheral input into the nervous system that may be helpful for some people," she explains. 

Nap

It's not always feasible, but if you can sleep or take a nap, the experts say this can be an effective way to stop migraine pain in its tracks. "Sleep, for many people with migraine, is a reset," Broner says. "And they're drawn to rest even if they wouldn't otherwise be tired."  

Researchers are still working to understand why sleep is so helpful, Graley says, but we know that getting adequate rest in general and a consistent sleep schedule can reduce migraine attacks.

"There's a whole lot of activity going on during sleep that allows us to reset, and it seems that some of those processes help turn off or affect this whole migraine cascade," Broner explains.

Caffeine

“Migraine brains love consistency,” she says, and that includes the amount of caffeine you have in a day.

For some people, drinking an extra cup of coffee or caffeinated tea can help curb a migraine attack while it can trigger an attack for others, Graley says. At the same time, skipping your usual morning cup of coffee can also be a trigger.

Graley typically recommends her patients drink no more than one or two cups of coffee per day. "So if you're drinking one caffeinated beverage as your maintenance, definitely try a second cup of caffeine or maybe even a third to help with your headache," she says.

But she also sees patients who are already drinking five or six cups a day. "That sort of overuse definitely contributes to increased migraines," Graley says.

Water

"A lot of patients walk around dehydrated and they're just unaware of that fact," Graley says. It’s important to stay consistently hydrated to prevent migraine attacks. And, if you feel like an attack is coming on, she recommends catching up on hydration.

Minty essential oils

Some of Broner's patients have success using essential oils that contain menthol or lidocaine patches on the neck, she says, which cause a cooling sensation on the skin.

These tricks adhere to the same concept mentioned above: "You're just simulating those nerve endings," Broner explains, "and it's bringing back signals deep into the brainstem."

Massage

A gentle scalp, neck or shoulder massage "can definitely be helpful and that's (due to) a very similar process to using heat and cold," Graley explains. "You are giving those nerves some gentle feedback so that they decrease pain signal transmission." 

Broner agrees: "It's that same pathway because nerve endings in the neck area also feed into his trigeminal complex within the brainstem," she explains.

Plus, "loosening up that muscle tissue can be very helpful," Graley adds.

Ice roller

It’s not uncommon for patients with migraine (including this author) to also report frequent jaw clenching or TMJ pain, which can contribute to migraine attacks.

An ice roller, frequently used in skin care practices, combines gentle massage with ice therapy. And the tool can be especially useful on the forehead, temples and jaw area to reduce muscle tension and pain.

While Graley wasn’t familiar with using an ice roller for this purpose, she speculated it could work similarly to the other cold therapies.

Remove pressure from your head

If your scalp is more sensitive during a migraine attack, normal activities that shouldn’t hurt may cause pain, a condition called allodynia.

“With the scalp sensitivity and scalp pain that can come with migraines, oftentimes patients have trouble tolerating headbands, glasses, ponytails, hats, things of that nature,” says Graley.

When this happens, it can help to remove anything that may be putting pressure on your scalp. For instance, try taking off your hat or taking your hair down from a tight ponytail. And if you notice that these accessories or hair styles regularly bring on migraine symptoms, avoid them as much as you can, Graley adds.

Biofeedback exercises

Many people find that mindfulness exercises specifically designed to help manage headaches, also known as biofeedback, can help reduce the pain.

Graley says her patients are often interested in formal biofeedback training with a specialist, but that's not always necessary. "There are several meditation apps that can be very helpful for migraine pain," she says, such as the Juva app.

There's also a fair amount of research supporting the use of mindfulness-based exercises, Broner says. In a small pilot study, mindful meditation didn't reduce migraine frequency more than other options. But it did shorten the duration of migraine attacks and improve participants' quality of life and ability to feel in control, Broner explains.

"We also know that regulating breath really calms down the nervous system and lowers blood pressure," she adds.

Home devices

For patients who are interested in reducing or avoiding the use of medication to address their migraine attacks, the experts often recommend FDA-cleared devices, such as Cefaly.

This device is "formulated for your trigeminal nerve and to sit on your forehead and treat migraine pain," Graley explains. Devices like this are "peripherally stimulating the nerve endings to feed back to the brain and quiet that migraine," Broner says.

You don't need a prescription to buy these devices, but they can be expensive and aren't appropriate for everyone, the experts say. People with certain medical conditions shouldn't use these, Graley says, so it's still a good idea to speak with your doctor first.

Also note that you should avoid using devices that aren't designed specifically for this purpose to manage migraine, Graley warns, such as TENS units or vibrating massagers.

Place your feet in warm water

A popular migraine remedy circulating on TikTok is to place your feet in warm water to reduce headache pain. Broner theorizes this may work similarly to a warm bath or shower, "or maybe it's just relaxing," she says.

When home remedies aren't enough...

"Migraine episodes are best treated early on before this central sensitization builds up, when you can nip it in the bud quickly," Broner says.

If you let a migraine attack go for too long without treating it, the episode can be harder to treat and your migraine attacks may become more frequent overall, she says. So, whether you're using medication, home remedies or a combination, use them early on in your migraine sequence.

It's okay to start with a non-medication remedy that you know provides relief, Broner says, "but if symptoms aren't going away within one or two hours, then people should be looking for other treatment options."

If your treatment strategy isn't working and you think you might benefit from another option even for a short-term period, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor, Graley says.