What do Serena Williams, Ben Affleck, Janet Jackson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have in common? They all reportedly suffer from migraine headaches. Migraines affect about 12 percent of American adults, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Dealing with migraines can be painful, frustrating, and expensive. A miracle cure for one person may have no effect on someone else, so migraine sufferers usually have to try different methods to find out what works. These seven cheap remedies have been shown to prevent migraines or relieve pain. Always consult a physician before starting any new course of treatment.
When applied to the skin, menthol has an analgesic effect that can provide short-term pain relief during a migraine. In one study of 25 migraine sufferers, more than half reported a decrease in pain two hours after applying a 6 percent menthol topical gel to the back of the neck and behind the ears. More than a quarter said their pain was completely gone after two hours. An earlier study demonstrated that a 10 percent menthol solution not only helped with pain but also provided relief for other migraine symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
Topical treatments are inexpensive, work quickly, and have few side effects. Menthol applied topically also does not interact with other medications. Stopain Migraine ($11 on Amazon) is a 6 percent menthol gel that specifically targets migraine sufferers.
General pain relief creams are often cheaper than migraine-specific products, although they typically contain other active ingredients such as camphor, wintergreen oil, mint oil, or clove oil in addition to menthol. Examples include Bengay Cold Therapy, which is 5 percent menthol ($10 on Amazon), and Bengay Ultra Strength, which is 10 percent menthol (about $7 at Target).
Tiger Balm has something of a cult following and is sold in a range of strengths from 5 percent to 16 percent menthol. The most common version is clove-scented Tiger Balm Red Extra Strength (10 percent menthol). It's a little pricey per ounce ($7 for 30g on Amazon), but it's a concentrated ointment, so a little goes a long way. Devotees say one container lasts a while, even when used for a variety of other ailments such as bug bites and sore muscles.
Applying a cool compress is an age-old remedy for headaches of all kinds. During a migraine, the artery that supplies blood to the dura (the lining of the brain) becomes inflamed. This artery sits behind the bone at the temple. Applying a cool compress to the area lowers the temperature of the blood passing through, which can help relieve pain. A cool washcloth or ice pack works just fine, although some migraine sufferers swear by cooling gel eye masks (starting at less than $5). A mask that also blocks out light may provide further relief for those who experience light sensitivity during a migraine.
Some migraine sufferers report that consuming a small amount of caffeine — say, one cup of coffee — can help when they feel a migraine coming on. Medical professionals have a few ideas about why this works. First, caffeine is an analgesic and anti-inflammatory. It narrows the blood vessels surrounding the brain, which is known to help with migraine pain. Researchers have also found that caffeine helps block the effects of a substance called adenosine, which is found in increased levels in the brain during a migraine attack. Caffeine is included in many over-the-counter painkillers to help them work faster, better, and longer.
However, an American Headache Society committee cautions that the exact relationship between caffeine, migraines, and adenosine is not yet clear. Drinking coffee daily is generally not recommended for migraine sufferers. Caffeine should be used as a migraine treatment no more than twice a week; otherwise there's a risk of "rebound headaches" resulting from overuse. People who become dependent on caffeine may experience migraines as symptoms of withdrawal when they don't get their morning java.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain that helps regulate sleep cycles. Although the link between melatonin and migraines is not fully understood, some people successfully use melatonin to prevent and treat migraines. In one study, people who took 3 milligrams of melatonin a half-hour before bed every night for three months experienced fewer migraines, and the attacks they did have were less intense and painful.
Some researchers suspect that melatonin imbalances in the brain are correlated with migraine and cluster headaches. Others posit that melatonin helps because it promotes consistent, restful sleep, which is widely recommended for migraine sufferers. Unstable sleep patterns, lack of sleep, and disturbed sleep are common among people who get migraines. Melatonin tablets are inexpensive (Target sells a generic version for $8 for 240 3 mg tablets) and widely available over the counter, but they can interact with some other medications and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Many migraine sufferers turn to inexpensive, over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, and aspirin. In some studies, products containing a combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine relieved pain 20 minutes faster than ibuprofen. Other studies suggest that taking these three components together is more effective than consuming them separately. Excedrin Migraine ($16 for 200 caplets at Walmart) is a consumer favorite that contains all three ingredients and is FDA-approved for migraine relief. However, avoid relying on these painkillers more than twice a week, as overuse can cause "rebound migraines."
There is some evidence that up to half of all migraine sufferers are deficient in magnesium. In one study, a daily magnesium supplement reduced the frequency of migraine attacks by about 40 percent. In other studies, though, magnesium supplements appeared to have no impact on migraine frequency or intensity. Although the jury is still out on whether magnesium supplements are an effective migraine prophylactic, they are widely available and inexpensive ($7 for 200 250 mg tablets at Target), so they may be worth a try if other cures are not working. Magnesium does interact with some medications, so be sure to check with a medical professional first.