I Tried Everything to Treat My Migraines — Here's What Worked
My very unscientific experiment has had undeniable results.
The first migraine I ever had came on during a Girl Scout trip. My mother was with me, luckily, and I remember feeling dizzy and nauseous in the backseat of the car. When we got to the parking lot, I puked on my shoes, and my mom pulled a second pair out of the trunk. I have several childhood memories of my mom enduring her own migraines, lying in a dark room with a cooling pad on her forehead. And when I got my period at the ripe, old age of nine, I inherited the headaches — and she always knew how to help me deal. We spent that entire troop outing in the bathroom, where she put cold paper towels on my neck, and I cried.
Since then, my migraine headaches have come in waves. In my early-20s, I got one every few months. But now that I’m closer to 30, I’ve been averaging four a month. I blame a good amount of this on stress — working freelance has been a lesson in constant, teeth-grinding anxiety.
A change in weather can set me off, and women are powerful as hell, but if it’s gonna rain, there’s not much I can do about that. The irritating thing about migraines is that there are several known causes (think: hormones; genetics; or triggers like food, stress, and weather), and therefore several possible treatments, which may or may not work for any individual. Trying a bunch of treatments at once can make it tough to determine which one or ones are working. But after a three-day migraine I swore would be my last, I was down to try anything, and everything.
“You’re doing an elimination diet in a way,” Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, a Harvard- and Yale-trained ER doctor, and author of Mom Hacks: 100+ Science-Backed Shortcuts to Reclaim Your Body, Raise Awesome Kids, and Be Unstoppable, told me. (She is not my doctor, and has never examined me.) “You’re trying everything and then taking things away to see what actually worked,” she said. So here’s how that went.
First, a confession: The main reason I wanted to get Botox was to erase the two little vertical lines that pop up between my eyebrows when I focus. If you’re someone who wants to “age gracefully,” all power to you. It’s not for me.
So I went to see Dr. Dara Liotta, MD, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon in NYC. In discussing my goals ahead of the appointment, Dr. Liotta mentioned that she could also give me some shots that could help to mitigate my migraine symptoms. “The theory is that some migraines are caused by muscles that constrict a nerve which causes the pain,” she explained. “Since Botox works to relax those muscles, it might help to relieve some symptoms.”
Dr. Liotta gave me a total of 15 shots all over my face, behind my head, and in my shoulder muscles. She also gave me a shot in my jaw muscles, because I grind my teeth, which might cause the migraines, too. (The word “might” comes up a lot when trying to troubleshoot migraines.)
As someone who has tattoos and a fairly high pain tolerance, Botox didn’t really hurt me all that much — kind of like a flu shot, but in your face. (The two right at the crown of my head? Those hurt.) The ones in my forehead were odd in that I could feel the Botox slip beneath my skin. But otherwise there was little to no sensation.
It took about three days for the Botox to set in, during which time I reveled in the shrinking of those two vertical lines. During the first month, while I could not move my eyebrows, I did get a migraine. Dr. Liotta told me that the Botox should help relieve my migraines for three to five months. I got two during that time, which I’ll tell you more about in a minute.
In the throes of my 72-hour migraine, I got a DM from a friend who had seen my Instagram story where I complained about my pain. Caitlin is an acupuncturist at WTHN – a studio in Manhattan that also offers cupping and LED light therapy. “Acupuncture has actually been shown, in some clinical trials, to help reduce migraine headaches,” Dr. Gillespie said. So when Caitlin told me to come in for treatment, I booked an appointment stat, just two days after getting Botox. (A doctor had told me it was okay that I was trying these concurrently, but certainly speak with your own physician before attempting the supermarket-sweep version of migraine treatments on yourself.)
Once I got to WTHN, I explained my ailments to Caitlin. She had me lay on my stomach, where she felt around for tightness. “Your traps are so wound up,” she commented, saying that this might be a source of the migraines. (Hunching over a laptop all day can do that to you.)
Caitlin got to work popping needle after needle around my body. She placed them in specific pressure points on my legs, in my hands and wrists, and, of course, along my back and neck. Before she slid the needle into my traps, she warned me that they might spasm — which they did, in a painful, charlie horse-like way for about 30 seconds. Once that passed, and all the needles were placed, she slipped some headphones on me, put on a meditation, and left me to cook for 20 minutes. She then repeated the process on my front, placing needles along my forehead, on my temples, and on a couple pressure points on my hands and feet.
Once we were done, Caitlin let me know that I might be sore the next morning. She advised me to come back weekly, if I could swing it, and to drink a lot of water. I didn’t pick up the weekly habit immediately because I left town for the holidays — and I got two migraines. Since then, I’ve kept to a routine of twice a month, and my migraine frequency has decreased drastically.
After having migraines for as long as I have, I’ve recognize that there are specific things that set me off. I typically get them around my period. If I wait too long to eat, and my blood sugar dips, it’s game over for me. Sugary snacks, red wine that isn’t organic, MSG, and, weirdly, taco seasoning all seem to fuck me up royally. Carbs both help and hurt. They can trigger a migraine, but, if I have a blood-sugar migraine, carbs are the only thing that make me feel better. These triggers can be different for everybody so please don’t take mine as a do- and don’t-eat list. What you can do is pay attention to what you’ve had in the days before a migraine hits. Retroactively is, unfortunately, the best way to identify them.
Doctors are big on tracking triggers to help avoid migraine episodes. So since starting this process, I’ve been actively tracking my triggers and seeing whether or not there is any one that seems to cause me more pain than the others. For example, those two migraines during holidays, I’m pretty sure, were food-related. One was likely kicked off by a blood sugar dip. The other, I believe, was set off by too much salt. In the past, I’d eat what I want and cross my fingers. Actively avoiding the things that I know will set me off has made a huge difference.
Keeping such a close eye on my body clued me in to another weird migraine symptom — a pre-migraine kind of high. The night before one of my migraines, I felt very loopy. It was like I’d smoked some weed, but I hadn’t. I just felt completely foggy and out-of-whack. I didn’t know it at the time, but this vertigo feeling, also associated with either unusually high or low energy, is a typical occurrence that can preempt a migraine. Sure enough, I woke up with a migraine the next morning. According to The Migraine Trust, this warning stage is called the Premonitory Phase of a migraine and can last anywhere from one to 24 hours before the main event. Looking back on past migraines, that stoned feeling predicated previous headaches, too.
Like I mentioned earlier, stress likely had a lot to do with the uptick of my migraines this past year. Migraines have been linked to stress. My go-tos for cutting down on stress are yoga, meditation, and journaling.
So during my anti-migraine experiment, I dove head-first into all three. I bought a new journal and scribbled as often as I could remember. Getting my thoughts out on paper made them feel a lot less scary and a lot more manageable. I tried to meditate once a day. And then I kicked my yoga habit from three days a week to four.
I definitely felt a reduction in stress, and a kind of overall lightness from this combination, which is healthy regardless of whether or not it helps with migraines. But the reduction of searing pain in my temple is a bonus — aside from the two food-related migraines I got, I haven’t had a single one since.
In the middle of all the woo-woo self-care, I made time for some high tech medical attention, too. Cove is a recently-launched website and app that’s similar to other telemedicine apps like Curology and Nurx, but with a focus on migraines. “The idea behind Cove is really about expanding access to high-quality migraine care and treatment at affordable pricing,” says Steven Gutentag, one of its founders.
An initial consultation on the site costs $30. After that you answer a handful of questions, get matched with a doctor, and they write up a treatment plan — medication, which you pay for by the monthly shipment (starting at $25). The idea behind Cove is that you try a plan, see how it works, and you take it from there, with your Cove-appointed doctor in your corner at all times.
The questionnaire hit on all the migraine topics, from frequency to intensity; symptoms that accompany migraines, like auras or nausea. It took about 15 minutes to complete, and I got a treatment plan about a week later.
My Cove doctor said I have chronic migraines, but since I only get them intermittently, he prescribed sumatriptan, a pill that can tackle a migraine once one hits — rather than ongoing medication to prevent them. He also prescribed metoclopramide, an anti-nausea pill I can take as needed. Since the other management tactics seem to have worked, I haven’t had the chance to try either of these yet, but knowing I have them on-hand makes the threat of another migraine a lot less scary.
So What Worked?
My migraines haven’t been eradicated. As I mentioned, I had two during this period of trial-and-error. But they were slightly less intense than others I’ve had in the past, which I think was an assist by the Botox. But truly, I think the acupuncture and the stress reduction helped the most. Acupuncture only lasts a few weeks, and it was right around the time that I should have gone for a second appointment that my first migraine hit, whereas Botox’s effects were supposed to last three to five months. For that reason, I believe that the acupuncture, not the Botox, was responsible for the majority of my relief. Huge caveat here, again, is that each individual responds differently to these treatments; this was my own experience, and a very unscientific experiment at that.
Since I finished my experiment, I’ve started going to acupuncture twice a week. I’ve also returned to therapy to manage my stress, and have been more careful about my food choices. Since then, my migraines have all but disappeared. I get about one month. Before, I was averaging three a week.
I feel like I’ve finally found a migraine regimen that works for me. I know that it’s unlikely I’ll ever be fully cured from migraines, since there is no “cure” aside from the treatment options I explored here. Even my mother, who has found serious relief from regular massages, still gets slapped down by the occasional headache. It’s an unfortunate reality both of us have to live with. But I feel lucky to have gotten mine as under control as possible. Plus, I haven’t puked on my shoes again — so that’s another bonus.