Alternative Treatments for Migraine

For some migraine patients, effective treatment extends beyond medication to include alternative treatments and lifestyle changes. We’re answering questions about alternative and nondrug options that may be helpful in your migraine management plan.

When a migraine attack strikes, most people would do anything to get relief. Oftentimes living with migraine means adopting holistic (treating the whole person, not just the symptoms) lifestyle habits. This approach to migraine treatment can make a big difference for those living with migraine—especially given that each person with migraine has different triggers, symptoms and lifestyle factors.

Why might someone want to consider alternative or holistic options?

To start, not every patient has access to medication either due to insurance coverage, side effects or limited number of treatments each month. Others may prefer a more natural route, or haven’t responded well to certain medications, or even want to prevent medication overuse headache. Some may be interested in combining holistic treatments with more common therapies to better relieve, reduce or prevent migraine symptoms.

Regardless of your approach, it’s important to work with your doctor to create a personal migraine management plan.

What vitamins and supplements are most helpful for treating migraine?

Nutraceuticals are food and dietary supplements that help people experience relief from migraine symptoms. Some of the most common vitamins and supplements recommended for migraine include riboflavin (vitamin B2), coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), magnesium, melatonin and feverfew.

Some people with migraine may have slightly low levels of these vitamins and minerals and supplementation may be helpful. However, even in people who have normal levels of these vitamins and minerals, taking them at certain doses can reduce migraine frequency.

Can exercise help you avoid a migraine?

For some people, intense exercise is a migraine trigger. But research also shows that regular exercise has the power to reduce migraine attacks. Brisk walking, swimming and other forms of gentle, low-impact movement are all great ways to help prevent migraine. These activities increase blood flow, release tension and improve sleep.

More specifically, people who practice yoga along with taking migraine medication have fewer and less severe headaches than those who only take medication. Deep breathing, body awareness and meditation help relieve stress and relax muscles.

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Over time, you can increase how often and how long you exercise. Thirty minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, is a good goal to set for yourself. Be sure to also drink plenty of fluids and eat regular, healthy meals. This will help you stay active without getting too tired. And, as with any new form of therapy, check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

Will a regular sleep schedule help manage migraine symptoms?

As many as 50% to 75% of people with chronic pain and headache disorders experience insomnia. When it comes to migraine, sleep and headache are often part of a cycle. Poor sleep, whether it’s not enough or of poor quality, can trigger migraine attacks. In return, migraine symptoms can disturb sleep and cause ongoing head pain.

A regular sleep schedule is crucial for the brain because the brain thrives on consistency. It can help you prevent and manage migraine symptoms. Sleep may even help ease up your migraine symptoms during an attack. But spending a lot of time in bed during the day can throw off your sleep cycles. Good sleep habits include setting a regular bedtime and wake time, making your bed a sleep-only zone, storing electronics outside the bedroom and maintaining a wind-down routine before bed.

Does acupuncture work for migraine?

There is some evidence that acupuncture may help reduce the frequency of headaches for people with migraine. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice that is believed to balance the flow of energy (or “chi”) in your body. During acupuncture, a practitioner inserts very fine needles into different parts of your body. They may use five to 20 needles, which stay in place for 20 to 45 minutes.

Chinese philosophy supports the idea that the needles add chi where it’s lacking or remove chi where it’s blocked. Adding and removing chi is believed to improve overall health. The needles increase blood flow and change endorphin levels (chemicals the body releases to decrease pain).

To get the best results, researchers recommend people with migraine receive acupuncture once or twice a week for eight to 10 sessions. The number of sessions may vary depending on how often you get migraine symptoms and how much pain they cause. Be sure to check the credentials of your acupuncturist to make sure they are reputable and experienced. Many states require a certification or license to practice acupuncture.

What pressure points relieve migraine symptoms?

Treatments that target specific pressure points on the body, such as acupressure (applying pressure or massage) and acupuncture, help relieve stress, pain and muscle tension in those spots. They also can help you feel more relaxed, less stressed and can help you sleep better.

Migraine pressure points used for prevention and treatment include points on the ears, hands, face, feet and neck. Many of these spots are areas of tension that people instinctively press on to relieve stress, headache pain and muscle tension.

Can nerve stimulators work for migraine?

Nerve stimulation devices are medical tools that use electrical currents or magnets to change activity in the brain. Some devices can stop attacks that are already underway, while others can prevent attacks. While these devices can be portable, others may require surgery for placement.

There are neuromodulation devices that received approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are no longer experimental. While most require a prescription, there are some over-the-counter devices that have been approved by the FDA.

Neuromodulation devices can be great alternatives for people living with migraine who have conditions that prevent them from taking medications, or who are worried about medication overuse headache. Talking with your doctor is the best way to learn if a treatment method like neuromodulation is best for you.

How does behavioral therapy help migraine?

Researchers believe behavioral therapies, a group of action-oriented treatments that focus on the mind, are among the most useful preventive treatments for migraine. These treatments include:

  • Cognitive-based therapy (talk therapy)
  • Biofeedback (a method using electrical sensors to learn to control some of your body’s functions, such as heart rate)
  • Relaxation
  • Mindfulness-based therapy

Research shows that for patients with migraine, behavioral therapies can reduce migraine by 35% to 50%. Its effects are similar to those of preventive medications.

Migraine is a vicious cycle: Stress can trigger migraine symptoms—and migraine pain can put your body in a state of stress, causing the nervous system to become overactive and making symptoms worse. Behavioral therapies give you skills and strategies to manage this stress, which can also help you feel like you have more control in how you respond to symptoms.

What alternative migraine treatments should you avoid?

“Natural” or “nondrug” doesn’t always mean it’s completely safe for everyone. As with any type of treatment, there can be side effects or contraindications (possible negative reactions between the treatment and another medical condition or treatment you’re using), which would be a reason to avoid that option.

Regular sleep, exercise, vitamins and supplements, pressure points, acupuncture and other nondrug treatments can be effective parts of your overall migraine management plan. To see if an alternative treatment is right for you, talk to your primary care provider or headache specialist before adding it to your migraine management plan.

Your doctor understands your medical history, migraine symptoms, other medical conditions, personal preferences and lifestyle factors. This information will help guide your doctor’s recommendations on what to try and what to avoid in ways that are right for you.

The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. For more of the latest news and information on migraine, visit the AMF Resource Library. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.

Reviewed for accuracy by the American Migraine Foundation’s subject matter experts, headache specialists and medical advisers with deep knowledge and training in headache medicine. Click here to read about our editorial board members.