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Migraine Headaches

Treatment & Research

Nondrug Options to Manage Migraine Pain

Dr. Josephine P. Briggs discusses complementary migraine treatments

Dr. Josephine P. Briggs is Director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Photo: NCCIH

Pain, in all of its forms, from migraines to chronic low-back pain, is a condition that can defy our best efforts to control it. This is why we at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are supporting researchers across the country and here in our own laboratories to illuminate how our brains process and cope with pain and to identify nondrug—mind and body and natural product—approaches to pain management.

We know that many Americans experience the pain of migraines, about 12 percent of the U.S. population, according to the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. While there are prescriptions and over-the-counter medications that can help treat or prevent migraines, many who suffer from migraines may also explore complementary therapies. In fact, research is showing some promise for mind and body approaches in helping people cope with migraine pain and for dietary supplements that may aid in easing or preventing migraines.

After you have read the wealth of information about migraines in this issue of NIH MedlinePlus magazine, I invite you to visit the NCCIH website at and explore our resources on pain and complementary approaches.

Migraine Treatment

Migraine treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks. Quick steps to ease symptoms may include napping or resting with eyes closed in a quiet, darkened room; placing a cool cloth or ice pack on the forehead, and drinking lots of fluid, particularly if the migraine is accompanied by vomiting. Small amounts of caffeine may help relieve symptoms during a migraine's early stages.

Drug therapy for migraine is divided into acute and preventive treatment. Acute or "abortive" medications are taken as soon as symptoms occur to relieve pain and restore function. Preventive treatment involves taking medicines daily to reduce the frequency and severity of future attacks or keep them from happening. Other non-pharmacological measures such as relaxation techniques and regular eating and sleeping schedules also help. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a variety of drugs for these treatment methods. Headache drug use should be monitored by a physician, since some drugs may cause side effects.

What Research Is Being Done?

Several studies either conducted or supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) are revealing much about the migraine process and may lead to new treatments or perhaps ways to block debilitating headache pain. Studies by other investigators are adding insight to headache etiology and treatment.

The molecular basis for migraine headaches and the aura associated with certain migraines is uncertain. One multi-faceted research study is examining how migraine with aura may affect metabolism and neurophysiological function. Investigators are also studying if particular regions of the visual cortex are unusually susceptible to the events in the brain that cause the aura.

Social and other factors may impact headache. Researchers are examining how race and psychiatric conditions are related to headache severity, quality of life, the ability to reliably follow a treatment program, and treatment response in people with migraines, tension-type headache, substance abuse headache, or cluster headache.

Genetics may contribute to a predisposition for migraines. Most migraine sufferers have a family member with migraine. Researchers are studying the activity of different genes to see if they make some people more likely to have migraines.

A major focus of headache research is the development of new drugs and other treatment options. Several drug studies seek to identify new drugs to treat various headache disorders and to find safer, more effective doses for medications already being used. Other research is aimed at identifying receptors or drug targets to stop the process of migraine aura in the brain.

Migraine 101 Quiz

Not sure of the facts when it comes to headaches and migraines? Test your knowledge with this quick quiz.


  1. True/False A migraine headache usually begins with a visual disturbance called an aura (spots, dots, or even zigzag lines).
  2. True/False All migraines involve only one side of the head.
  3. True/False There is a cure for migraine headaches.
  4. Multiple Choice Dietary triggers for migraines include:
    • Chocolate
    • Cheese
    • Food additives such as MSG
    • Alcohol
    • A,B, and C
    • A,B,C and D
  5. True/False Migraines sometimes runs in families.
  6. True/False A bad headache is usually a sign of a brain tumor.

Answer Key

  1. False. In most cases of migraine, there is no aura.
  2. False. A typical migraine sometimes involve the whole head instead of only one side.
  3. False. Migraine headaches can be treated with medication, but there is no cure.
  4. The correct answer is F.
  5. True. Although many sufferers have a family history of migraine, the exact hereditary nature of this condition is still unknown. People who get migraines are thought to have an inherited abnormality in the regulation of blood vessels.
  6. False. Headaches can serve as a warning sign of more serious disorders, but there are many causes. See your doctor if your headaches aren't relieved by standard treatments.

Sources: Patient Education Institute, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Read More "Migraine Headaches" Articles

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Fall 2015 Issue: Volume 10 Number 3 Page 6-7