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Migraine Headaches

For some, the severity of migraine headaches can be reduced by lifestyle changes.

Doctors usually prescribe preventive medication to manage migraine headaches. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Doctors usually prescribe preventive medication to manage migraine headaches.

Migraine Headaches

Because they can be so painful, inconvenient and disruptive, many people wonder how to cure migraine headaches. Unfortunately, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, there is no cure for this bothersome illness. There are, however, a number of things migraine sufferers can do to lower their chances of experiencing headaches and to reduce the severity of them when they occur. From stress management strategies to migraine-specific medications, recovery is possible by working with physicians to design a treatment plan suiting symptoms and lifestyle.

Stress Management for Migraines

Experts don't know exactly what causes migraines, but they have identified a long list of things including unexpected changes in the weather and certain artificial sweeteners; unsurprisingly, both stress and anxiety also appear on the list. Fortunately, stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and exercise are relatively easy to work into a daily routine, giving migraine sufferers a point of departure for developing their own individualized treatment plans. Generally, these techniques are not strong enough to ward off migraines on their own, but in conjunction with other forms of treatment, they can increase quality of life and decrease the risk for migraines, especially in patients known to have stress-related triggers.

Preventive Medications

Patients generally have two options when it comes to migraine medications: those preventing the headaches from happening and those relieving their symptoms when they occur. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, patients often choose to take both, forming a solid defense against the headaches.

To keep migraines from happening, doctors usually prescribe preventive medication, which may include:

  • Beta blockers
  • Calcium-channel blockers
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants (anti-seizure drugs)

Because they can each produce serious side-effects, doctors usually reserve these medications for patients who have frequent (more than two per month) or particularly severe migraines. Despite the risks, the benefits of taking these medications are numerous. According to the American Headache Society, not only do preventive drugs reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, but they also make them easier to treat when they occur, which can keep patients from becoming overly dependent on drugs used for acute attacks.

Like other prescription medications, however, preventive migraine drugs do have some drawbacks. For instance, it may take two or three months for the drugs to work, and some patients may need to start treatment at very low doses to minimize side effects. Additionally, some medications may cause rebound headaches if patients suddenly stop taking them. For these reasons, patients should always discuss both the benefits and potential drawbacks of taking preventive medications with their physicians before beginning treatment.

Medications for Treating Acute Migraine Attacks

There are also a variety of medications used to treat migraines when they happen, which can be broken down into three main groups:

  • Triptans
  • Ergots
  • Isometheptene, dichloralphenazone and acetaminophen hybrids (Midrin)

Triptans, which work by constricting blood vessels in the brain, are the largest group, containing about seven different drugs designed specifically to fight migraines. Examples of this class include sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt) and eletriptan (Relpax). Ergots also work by constricting blood vessels but generally have more side effects than triptans and are thus less popular. Midrin combines the benefits of both drugs with a pain killer and a sedative, making it an interesting (and perhaps more versatile) alternative to traditional migraine medications. All of these drugs treat the nausea, pain and light sensitivity characteristics of moderate to severe migraines.

Hormone Therapy

Although it is still relatively new, some studies have shown hormone therapy to be effective for certain groups of patients. For example, one study found that regular doses of estrogen prevented migraines in women who normally experienced them during menstruation. Researchers believe the steady doses to be beneficial because they prevented levels of estrogen in the participant's bodies from falling, which normally occurs as part of the menstrual cycle.

Elimination Diets and Dietary Supplements

For some patients, a particular kind of food is all it takes to trigger a migraine. With a doctor's guidance, these individuals might consider eliminating known trigger foods (e.g., chocolate, cheese, onions and nuts) and then slowly reintroducing them into their diets. By monitoring their body's reactions to each food, patients may be able to determine which one is causing their headaches.

By contrast, some patients may benefit by adding certain foods or supplements to their diets. For example, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), magnesium and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) have all been shown by research to reduce the frequency and severity of acute migraine attacks. Coenzyme Q10 and melatonin may also have benefits, although more research is needed to determine their specific effects and potential drawbacks.

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