If you’re one of the over 36 million Americans who suffer from migraine headaches, chances are you’ve taken any and all steps necessary for relief. But did you know that there are actually certain things you should never do when you have a headache or migraine? According to Diane Stafford, coauthor of Migraines for Dummies, some remedies can actually exacerbate that pounding, blinding head pain.
But before we get to list of what not to do when you have a migraine headache, let’s talk about the symptoms.
Those who suffer 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 pain, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and loud noises. When that extreme pain catches you off-guard and you’re thrown into a migraine-induced stupor, you inevitably find yourself desperately seeking relief.
That said, Stafford and co-author Dr. Jennifer Shoquist suggest pinpointing the triggers and remedies that lend relief instead shotgunning remedies and making your migraine worse.
“When head monsters are pounding nails into your neurons, you’re ready to try anything,” Stafford says. “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 headache, courtesy of Stafford and Dr. Shoquist.
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.
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,” Stafford says. “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 OK first.”
Ignore dosage recommendations
You received sound advice from a health care provider about how much of a certain pain relief medication you should take and how often, so don’t start improvising.
“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,” Stafford warns.
Believe crazy claims
Though you may not believe drilling a few holes in your head will relieve your migraine, when you’re in the throes of a migraine, you’re ready to try anything. 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.
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 will probably never work.
“Nothing miraculous is going to happen just by virtue of your commitment to a certain drug,” Stafford notes. “Instead, look for a replacement. Get with your doctor and try a different direction.”
Try to gut it out & 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,” Stafford says. “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.”
In other words, stay home and rest.
Stuff yourself with tons of food
Migraine sufferers have been known to overeat, thinking that it may knock down their pain a few notches. “Unfortunately, food-stuffing won’t do any good,” Stafford says. “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,” Stafford interjects. “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.”
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,” Stafford explains. “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 migraine 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, deciding that all the coddling and TLC is pretty nice,” Stafford says. “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. Again, not so fast.
“People who are frequent flyers in the ER have several big problems,” Stafford explains. “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.”
Stafford adds to keep your optimism at a fever pitch while you’re on your migraine-busting mission.
“You definitely can find your way toward a higher plateau, where you can live more peacefully and less painfully,” she says.
A version of this article was published in November 2011.