Not Just a Headache: Eleven Ways NOT to Treat a Migraine

Updated on October 11, 2022

getty rf photo of depressed woman with headacheAbout 28 million Americans have migraine headaches. If you’re one of them, you know all too well that it’s hard to predict what a day will hold. Any morning, afternoon, or evening, you may find yourself in the throes of mind-boggling pain, not to mention nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to loud noises. You’ve likely figured out at least some of what you can and can’t do to try and relieve yourself from migraine pain.

But inevitably, says Diane Stafford, there are days when the extreme pain catches you off guard and you’re thrown into a migraine-induced stupor—desperately seeking relief. At these times, she stresses, you should remember a rule that should be an out-and-out federal law: don’t repeat mistakes you made in the past.

“When head monsters are pounding nails into your neurons, you’re ready to try anything,” says Stafford, coauthor along with Dr. Jennifer Shoquist of Migraines For Dummies® (Wiley, ISBN: 978-0-7645-5485-8, $19.99). “But before you desperately choose a remedy at random, try developing a headache-busting agenda where you check out the usual suspects. Doing a little detective work can help you zero in on your personal troublemakers. Certain aspects of your meals and your environment may be headache-causing ‘toxins,’ so the sooner you pinpoint these triggers, the more quickly you can get a handle on the fate of your pain.”

To highlight the importance of relying on a valid headache plan (and not zig-zagging madly into the land of improvisation), here are 11 very important ways not to treat a migraine:

Go off your program. Sure, you know that you get headaches from MSG. Or red wine. Or peanuts. But you still want to believe that your triggers will lose their oomph someday. This probably isn’t going to happen. So it’s far better to stick to the migraine management plan that you devised—don’t go veering off on side streets.

“Methodical folks are unlikely to have trouble with migraine pain after they get their management plan worked out,” says Stafford. “But the wafflers of this world, the people who experience a brand-new world almost every day, are often too quick to abandon or forget the basics—and oops, their headache does it again. So try to be sensible and practical. You can’t rewrite your migraine-attack plan each time the weather changes. Do what works and stick to it.

“If you pick up some new tips along the way, you can incorporate them into your migraine-attack plan,” she adds. “But don’t go changing too much after you discover what works for keeping your headaches in line. If your migraine-relieving strategies have accomplished the goals of reduced frequency and severity, why not adhere to them?”

Take too many drugs. One day, you throw caution to the wind and take someone else’s drugs. Another day, you experiment with several different medications during the several hours that you’re fighting a migraine.

“Don’t do it!” advises Stafford. “Experimenting with drugs that aren’t on your headache management plan may result in nasty drug interactions and perhaps even a horrible migraine. You need to run your ideas past your doctor and get an okay first.”

Ignore dosage recommendations. You received some sound advice from a healthcare provider about how much of a certain pain relief medication you should take—and how often. So, don’t start improvising: “Oh, that helped a little bit, so I’ll take twice as much an hour from now.”

“Don’t do it!” stresses Stafford. “Knowing how much of your medication to take, and when to take that amount, is a critical part of getting good results. If you go jogging off the path of good medicine, you may end up with worse problems than a bad headache.”

Believe crazy claims. “If you’ll just put your head in the vise and let me drill a few holes, you’ll never have migraines again.” This is just one example of a treatment that a desperate migraine sufferer just might be willing to try. Off-the-wall treatments may sound intriguing, but be sure to run past your doctor anything you want to add to your headache treatment plan. Unless you have a medical background, you probably aren’t qualified to weed through bogus product claims and pinpoint alternatives that are actually legitimate.

“Sure, plenty of hucksters may want to sell you a crystal ball for predicting when a headache is coming, or a magic carpet that will zap migraine energy when you start feeling bad,” says Stafford. “But the truth is, you’re going to find far more comfort in the kinds of treatments that have been validated for their helpfulness and safety in reducing the pain, nausea, and other symptoms of migraines. Let wacky witch doctors sell their bills of goods to someone else—you’re not buying. It’s best to keep your head intact—especially for all those days when you don’t have a headache and your brain comes in handy.”

Keep taking a drug that doesn’t work. Don’t keep taking a medication that isn’t working or has never worked for you—it probably never will work. “Nothing miraculous is going to happen just by virtue of your commitment to a certain drug,” notes Stafford. “Instead, look for a replacement. Get with your doctor and try a different direction.”

Try to gut it out and go out. When you’re feeling very sick and incapacitated, you may try to keep a stiff upper lip, gut it out, and go someplace.

“Of course, you don’t want to miss anything, and that’s a real motivator,” says Stafford. “But going places when you’re way too sick is always a mistake. Chances are, you won’t make it through the activity, and you’ll be forced to cut the fun short and drive yourself home. Or you may wind up too sick to drive, and then you’ll be in a real fix.”

Stuff yourself with tons of food. Migraine sufferers have been known to overeat, thinking that it may knock down their pain a few notches. They’ve tried everything else, for heaven’s sake! So why not eat?

“Unfortunately, food-stuffing won’t do any good,” says Stafford. “The only reason your headache may seem to disappear right after you eat is probably just lucky timing—your headache is already on the wane. As a side note, packing on extra pounds probably isn’t going to make you happy, either.”

Try the sun-and-activity remedy. Someone may try to convince you that you’ll feel better if you just get out of bed and go to a festival, county fair, concert, or other outdoor activity. You might think to yourself, A little sunshine, a beer or two, and a turkey leg, and I’ll be as good as new.

“Not so fast there,” says Stafford. “It isn’t very likely that sun and full-tilt activity (or alcohol) will make you feel better if you’re already in the throes of a bad migraine. In fact, these activities are likely to aggravate migraines. On the other hand, if you have nothing more than the nagging edge of a headache, you may want to take some medication and go ahead with your plans.”

Doctor hop. You don’t like what you hear from one doctor, so you go to another and another. Soon you’re making a hobby of it.

“Seeing one doctor who focuses on your headaches and helps you find answers is a far better use of your time and money,” explains Stafford. “When you find a medical advisor who understands you and can help you manage your migraines, stick with him. Pay attention to his suggestions until, together, you devise a headache management plan that works for you.”

Foster a sick-person reputation. A gut feeling tells you that, despite what your doctor says, you really won’t get well. You fear that you’ll face debilitating migraines forever. Nothing is going to work for you.

“One good way to make sure that you’ll always have headaches is to get real comfy with the victim role—decide that all the coddling and TLC is pretty nice,” says Stafford. “If you take this approach, you’ll only help give migraine sufferers a bad name.”

Become an ER junkie. For you, it’s too much trouble to see a specialist and set up a migraine management plan. Instead, you just head for the emergency room when you get a bad headache.

“Bad plan,” says Stafford. “People who are frequent flyers in the ER have several big problems. The staff may begin to dismiss your complaints because you cry wolf too often. Furthermore, you may build up a tolerance to the medications you’re given time after time. And, you may also become a drug-abuse suspect. Take the time to see a headache specialist and find out the real scoop on what you should be doing—instead of just flying by the seat of your pants every time you have a migraine attack.”

“Migraine headaches come in as many varieties as there are materials in a fabric store,” says Stafford. “This variety makes them difficult—but certainly not impossible—to treat. Once you figure out your headache triggers and rearrange certain aspects of your lifestyle—including what not to do when a headache strikes—you’ll be on the road to sending your headaches to the B-team bench, where they’ll languish and rarely take a starring role again.

“Remember, keep your optimism at a fever pitch while you’re on your migraine-busting mission,” she concludes. “You definitely can find your way toward a higher plateau, where you can live more peacefully and less painfully!”

About the Authors: Diane Stafford has been a health writer for 20 years. Jennifer Shoquist, MD, is a family practice physician

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