Tips to Manage Chronic Headaches or Migraines

If you are someone who suffers from extreme headaches or migraines, you understand the debilitating pain they can cause. A migraine, specifically, produces severe discomfort and managing the pain can be very difficult. Here are some tips to manage living with chronic headaches or migraines.

Seek a qualified medical provider

The first step to controlling your migraines is talking to a medical provider. A neurologist, like myself, can help determine what type of migraine you’re having and then build out the best care plan based on your medical history and symptoms. There are tests we can run to rule out other causes of your pain, like an MRI or CT scan may be necessary if your case is unusual, complex or your pain suddenly becomes severe.

I encourage you to be as prepared as possible for your appointment so that your provider can best answer your questions and get you help quickly. One tip that I think is helpful is keeping detailed notes of things that may help with developing a treatment plan. This could include any medications you are on, the intensity of your pain, symptoms before and during the migraine and how long your headaches are lasting. Be sure to list all your symptoms, even if you don’t believe it has anything to do with your migraines.

There are a lot of prescription medications that have great results for preventing and managing migraine pain. Your provider may put you on a regimen of these medications to help with your symptoms. However, medication is only one step in getting relief. It’s very important to take good care of yourself, so when the pain strikes, you’re prepared.

Recognizing triggers

There are things that can trigger or make a migraine worse – and if you’re someone who experiences migraines you probably have a good idea what these things may be. Triggers vary from person to person but many times include the following:

  • Hormonal shifts such as menstrual cycles
  • Allergies
  • Family history
  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors that can consist of changes in weather, stress and lack of sleep

Research shows that a day or two before a migraine starts, you might become cranky, and moody, lose your appetite, and experience a stiff neck and increased thirst. A classic migraine sufferer typically gets an aura around 20 minutes before the migraine fully kicks in. An aura can be flashes of light, blind spots, and other vision abnormalities.

Steps to head off the pain

A migraine is not your fault. It’s a neurological genetic condition. You can, however, empower yourself to adopt lifestyle changes that decrease or eliminate triggers and can lessen the frequency of your migraine attacks. Top of my list would be maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and managing stress.

Often times a restless night’s sleep can trigger migraines, so making sure you have a regular sleep schedule is important. A good routine is to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even on weekends. Pay attention to what you eat and drink before bedtime. Heavy meals, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can interfere with sleep.

If you feel signs of a migraine, take a break and step away from whatever you’re doing. Light and sound can worsen migraine pain, so moving to a dark, quiet room can be helpful, or better yet, try and sleep if you can. Many of my patients find relief when applying hot or cold compresses to the head or neck. Warm showers or baths may have a similar effect.

Eat smart

What you eat can play a significant role in how often you experience migraines. Commonly reported migraine triggers include:

  • Alcohol (especially red wine and beer)
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheese
  • Cured meats
  • Artificial sweeteners

It can be hard to figure out if and what food triggers your migraines, so keeping a food diary and your headache journal can be a helpful tool for you and your provider to identify your best treatment. If you think a specific food is triggering migraine attacks, try to avoid that food for a month and see if your symptoms improve. Be careful about trying stringent diets so you do not miss important nutrients.

Strive for balance

Suffering regularly from migraines is challenging. But making healthy lifestyle choices can help. And always ask your friends and loved ones for support. Your provider can help find medications that work for you, but it can be a trial-and-error process. If you need a provider, visit


Gwyneth McCawley, MD

Board-Certified Neurologist
Pardee Neurology Associates

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