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When a migraine attack sets in, all you want is relief, which is where medication comes in — for some people. But is there anything else you can do to help shorten the attack or make the symptoms more bearable until the medication starts to work?

If you’re in need of migraine first aid, try the following interventions. Most are free and don’t cause side effects.

1. Rest in a Dark, Quiet Room

Many people with migraine report sensitivity to light and sound, which can make things worse. According to a review published in July 2021 in The Journal of Pain, the pain caused by light can be traced to a group of light-sensing cells in the eye called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). They help maintain sleep-wake cycles and pupil response to light. 

Exposure to light activates the ipRGCs and pain-transmitting cells, spanning several minutes. Research suggests this may be why headache pain gets worse in the light and improves after 20–30 minutes in the dark.

Go to a room that’s dark and quiet, says Janine Good, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Even better, try to get some sleep. “Not all headaches respond to sleep,” Dr. Good notes, but the chemicals released in your brain during sleep may help ease your pain. Also, she says, if you’re sensitive to sounds, blocking them out could help.

2. Apply a Warm or Cold Compress to Your Forehead or the Back of Your Neck

“Many of my patients prefer a cold compress,” says Lawrence C. Newman, MD, director of brain health at Atria Senior Living in New York City and chair of the American Migraine Foundation.

Cold can have a numbing effect. “It distracts the brain from the migraine,” says Good. “You’re stimulating other nerve endings where you’re putting the compress.”

To protect your skin, keep a cloth between your skin and the ice pack. If you use a commercial cold pack, make sure there are no leaks where chemicals could escape and potentially harm your eyes, according to University of Michigan Health.

You may prefer a warm compress, Dr. Newman says. Heat can help relax tense muscles, so you can also try taking a warm bath or shower.

3. Drink Up

For around one in three people who have migraine, dehydration is a trigger, according to the American Migraine Foundation. If you’re one of them, staying hydrated may help prevent migraine attacks.

Have trouble drinking enough water? Try flavoring water with a slice of lemon or lime or adding a small amount of fruit juice. When your water tastes better, you may drink more.

What’s more, when you feel migraine coming on, aggressively hydrating may help shorten the attack, says Roderick Spears, MD, endowed chair of migraine and chief of the headache division at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

4. Massage

Massage can relax muscles and reduce stress (another migraine trigger), which is one reason it’s been studied for pain management for several conditions, including headache, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

That said, massage may not work for everyone, Newman says. If you are extremely sensitive to touch during a migraine attack, a massage can make you feel worse. This is especially true for people with allodynia, a fairly common symptom of migraine that causes sensitivity to touch and other stimuli that aren’t typically painful.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, allodynia can make even normal activities, such as brushing your hair or resting your head on a pillow, very painful.

5. Try Meditating

As many as 8 in 10 people with migraine report stress as a trigger, says Rebecca Wells, MD, an associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and director of their comprehensive headache program.

Mindfulness meditation can help ease stress, because it requires you to focus on what is happening in the moment rather than what may happen in the future, she says.

“One example that is available to everyone is focusing on a sensation, such as the breath,” she says. It’s natural to still have thoughts and feelings while practicing mindfulness meditation, so notice those, but then turn your attention back to your breath, suggests Dr. Wells.

Researchers are trying to determine if practicing this type of mindfulness can change a person’s ability to respond to stress and help manage migraine. In a study published in 2021 in JAMA Internal Medicine, Wells and her colleagues found that mindfulness meditation may help treat the overall burden of migraine by improving disability, quality of life, and depression.

6. Smell the Lavender

The scent of lavender may have a calming effect, which can also help relieve stress. Lavender essential oil helps reduce stress and anxiety and improve depression symptoms, according to a review of studies published in September 2022 in the journal Molecules.

Lavender oil has also been studied specifically as a migraine treatment. A small study published in European Neurology evaluated the effects of lavender essential oil on people experiencing migraine. In the placebo-controlled trial, those who inhaled lavender oil for 15 minutes had a less severe migraine attack than those who did not sniff lavender.

7. Prevent Attacks With Exercise

Exercising during a migraine attack can make the pain worse, but exercising between migraine attacks may help reduce how many you have.

Contrary to popular belief, exercise won’t trigger migraine in most people, says Dale Bond, PhD, director of research integration at Hartford Hospital/HealthCare in Connecticut.

“In terms of aerobic exercise, we would generally tell our patients to start with walking — it’s easy, it’s safe, it’s cheap, and it’s practical — and to do that regularly,” says Dr. Bond.

Regular exercise can also help reduce stress and improve sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Bottom Line

When used together with medication, these home remedies and lifestyle strategies work for many people, Newman says. If these tips don’t ease your pain, though, talk to your doctor about making changes to your treatment plan.

Additional reporting by Becky Upham.