Medication is an inevitable part of most migraineur’s rescue plan (certainly mine), but due to the nature of chronic migraine and the risk of medication overuse headache, unfortunately, it’s a tool in our arsenal that we have to use sparingly and thoughtfully. Each time I take medication I have to weigh whether the attack is “bad enough” to treat with meds against whether I’m willing to “use up” a day of the month’s allotted medication days for that particular day/hour of pain
Because of this, I’ve had to develop lots of pain relief tools that do not include medication. Migraine pain can feel all-encompassing, but getting to know how my body deals with pain and finding ways to soften into the experience, instead of spending my time fighting it, has transformed the way I live with chronic migraine.
Often, when I do take meds, I also employ a handful of the non-pharmaceutical pain relief methods described below. Each of these tools have been developed over time and through lots of trial and error. I know some of the strategies are much easier said than done, but trust me, with practice (…something chronic migraine unfortunately gives you a lot of…) they can become truly helpful.
Sharing seven of my most reliable pain relief techniques that don’t involve taking a pill. I hope that some of them are helpful to you and would absolutely love to hear other coping methods that you use in the comments sections at the end of this post.
#1 Calm My Surroundings
This is one of my first go-to’s when dealing with pain. If I’m in a bad flare and at home, there is a list of things my boyfriend and I go through to make my environment one that is calming and supports coping with and riding out pain.
These things include: turning lights down or off (most of our lights are on dimmers so they are adjustable based on my level of light sensitivity), filling and starting my essential oil diffuser or lighting a candle, putting on comfortable clothes + fuzzy socks, closing curtains and blinds to make room as dark as possible, getting out eye mask/ear plugs/headphones and finally getting under my gravity blanket to hunker down and ride out the pain. I also normally stock my side table with hot tea, a water bottle my phone and charger (sometimes I also put meds that I might end up using here, just as backup and so that if I need them I don’t have to get up).
This step is all about creating an environment that makes it easy for you to do nothing but settle into a cozy resting place and be surrounded by all of the things that bring you the most comfort during a very uncomfortable experience (aka migraine).
#2 Create a Supportive Headspace
This is where mindfulness is absolutely crucial in my pain management arsenal. Often, in moments of extremely high pain I also experience intense emotions like fear of things getting worse, frustration that nothing is helping, or sadness about missing out on events and daily life. Sometimes these feelings are so consuming that I need to vent or cry to release them before I can move into feeding myself supportive thoughts.
But, once I can make the shift of noticing the negative reel going through my mind, and then change it to a comforting and supportive one, I tap into one of the most effective ways I cope with pain.
Sometimes I will have a discussion with my boyfriend (or if I’m alone…self-talk with myself), where I simply decide: “Okay, from this moment on I am going to do everything I can to support myself getting through this experience. I am not going to feed thoughts of fear and anxiety. I am going to respond to them over and over again with loving and supportive words that will help me get to the other side of this” ♥️
Supportive thoughts and mantras I use frequently include: I have done this before. I can get through this. This too shall pass. I can handle this. This is just one day. This pain can and will break. All I need to do is take this one moment at a time.
Believe me, I know how difficult this can be to do in moments of intense pain. It’s so much easier to feed the negative thoughts that pain brings along with it. It comes so naturally to be afraid of things getting worse or point out all of the ways that what you are experiencing is completely overwhelming, unfair and scary. This is undoubtedly the tool in my arsenal that took me the longest to develop, and something I continue to work hard at (and have definitely not mastered yet!)
But, despite the fact that learning to shift my headspace from one of frantic overwhelm to calm acceptance has been the hardest coping skill to put into practice; it has become one of the most effective. It is truly amazing how we can impact our experience of pain by calming our mind, even though it’s a tactic that is incredibly arduous to learn (more tips to come later in a breakdown of exactly how I improved at this!)
#3 Ice, Ice Baby! ❄️
Ice is my main non-pharmacological physical pain relief go-to. I’ve talked about my ice-pack situation before, and after years of trying different ones have perfected exactly what works for me. I use these ice packs (soft and moldable) covered with a thin (clean) sock and put it directly on my eyes, held in place by an eye mask. This setup has gotten me through literally hundreds of migraines. 95% of the time, my pain is behind my eye(s) and forehead, so this keeps the ice and pain relief right where I need it. I find these stay nice and cold for at least an hour (much longer than others I have tried), and it’s easy to swap out a fresh ice pack and slip it into the sock when you need to.
A second recent favorite is this Migraine Relief Cap from Amazon. The stretchy material and compression feels really good on my head, and I like how it stays securely in place. You can kind of move the individual ice packs inside the hat around to where you want them, and if I pull the hat down over my eyes, I shift two of the small ones directly over each eyeball. I was surprised by how much I like this product and now really happy to have it as a tool (it also has a hole at the top for a ponytail! #fashun). It doesn’t stay cold as long as my DIY get-up described above, but I’ve still found it useful.
Finally, I also have and will occasionally use the headache hat. But to be honest, I only use it about once a month when I have an attack that is more “throbby” rather than sharp and pointed (which is much less frequent) and I want to mix up my ice situation. A lot of the time it doesn’t help my pain in the same way my moldable ice packs + eye mask setup does, but for certain attacks I really am grateful to have it in my toolbox.
#4 Find Some Mindful Movement ♀️
Pain naturally causes us to tense our bodies and curl up, trying to protect and guard ourselves from what feels like an attack on our body. Sometimes, on really bad days, I realize I’ve been automatically holding myself in a tense position for hours without much awareness. Finding some gentle mindful movement allows me to let go of some of the tension I am holding and also helps to distract my mind from the pain.
My favorite source for guided mindful movement is the Yoga Wake Up app, which has short audio guided yoga and meditation classes ranging from 5-20 minutes. However, depending how bad my pain is, sometimes mindful movement is as simple as just sitting at the foot of my bed and doing some seated twists/neck stretches and breathing (inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts). Once I get myself sitting up, I’ll often move from my bed to the floor and do some stretches lying down in the dark (which has totally scared my boyfriend before #shadowstretcher #boo. I think that this form of pain relief looks different for every person and changes from day to day. But, I find that, in general, whether it’s simply sitting up and doing a few shoulder rolls while breathing deeply, or even just deep breathing while lying down, inviting intentional breath and movement into the pain experience can generally help soften it.
#5 Audio Distraction
I didn’t discover audiobooks and podcasts until a few years into dealing with migraine and oh my holy goodness, did it truly transform my life! I now devour both at a rabid pace and rely heavily on them as a source of distraction. I use audio distraction on both low and high pain days, often as a way to keep myself from looking at screens (which are a major trigger for me) or just to keep my mind busy while lying down and resting. I use audible for all of my audiobooks and the apple podcast app.
On a related note, I highly suggest investing in a pair of wireless headphones; they are what I use for almost all of my audio consumption. I found that listening to books or podcasts out loud often required the volume to be high enough that it would aggravate my pain. With wireless headphones, I can play things at a much lower volume that is more comfortable for my head and not constantly be worrying about the wire. One of my best migraine-friendly investments!
#6 Cefaly Device
@The Migraine Life and I are both big #cefsandchill fans. I get a lot of questions on insta about the cefaly device and how effective it is. I’ve used the device regularly for over two years now, and consider it an invaluable tool in my migraine arsenal.
Although it has not impacted the overall severity of frequency of my migraine attacks, the cefaly device does help me immensely with pain management. I use it most evenings (when my head pain often kicks up) and many nights it can help take the edge off low-level pain enough that I am able to get to sleep without medication — woo! For more severe pain, it’s distracting sensation truly helps ease my migraine pain in a way that nothing else can.
The best way I can describe how the cefaly feels when it is on (I should preface this with saying that it is a very unique feeling and hard to articulate in words…) is to imagine the sensation of your foot falling asleep and then going back to normal, particularly that “in-between phase” where it feels all tingly and prickly; that’s how the cefaly feels behind my eyebrows and across my forehead when it’s active. You can adjust the level of intensity and what I’m able to tolerate varies day by day. But, it’s tingly sensation is enormously helpful in distracting from pointed migraine pain and diffuses some of the tension that can build up in that area.
#7 Reach Out for Some Encouragement
Being stuck in your room with a raging migraine is not only physically painful; but also emotionally exhausting, lonely and isolating. I find that some words of support from people in the outside world can go a long way in moments when it feels like I’m stuck in a dark hole and pain is trying to swallow me up.
I have a short list of people who I can text and say, “I’m having an awful attack, my pain is so high I’m just so frustrated and having a really difficult time”, who I know will respond with comfort and support…because I have told them that in that moment, that’s what I need most. This is a crucial component of this tool: you must communicate with your support team when you feel good about how they can best support you when you feel bad.
Often people’s first instinct is to help problem solve and offer solutions, especially when we reach out and say we are struggling and in pain. However, what I really need to hear from my support team during my highest pain moments is not advice or suggestions, but instead, words of support and comfort.
Receiving a text from my Mom or best friend that says, “I’m so sorry you have to deal with such a bad one today, that is so so unfair and hard, I’m sending you all my love” or “that’s so brutal girl, I’m so sorry, but I know you can get through this”, can be a lifeline that reminds me there are people outside of the four walls I am stuck in who care about what I am going through and who love me. This tool can be a little uncomfortable to set up, because it requires you asking directly for support, but the payoff (at least in my experience) of receiving words of comfort that you really need is more than worth it.
I’d love to hear your #nonpill pain management techniques below and maybe I’ll do a follow up blog with a mega-list compiling all of our best pain hacks and management methods. Hang in there, and know that as lonely and small as every attack can try and make you feel, you are actually so brave and courageous for getting through it over and over again #migrainewarrior
I share each step along my road to wellness and healing and hope that in doing so I can inspire you along your own path. Thank you so much for being here.
One thing that helps me through high pain and especially with falling asleep is tiger balm (essentially peppermint & eucalyptus oil that has a texture like coconut oil).
I apply it all over my forehead (luckily my pain is more next to than behind my eyes) and if I feel my jaw or neck tensing up I’ll also add a layer there.
This helps me more than ice! The effect lasts for about 0.5-1h but in this time the pain drops so much. This allows me to clear my headspace and make it a nicer one or, if I apply generously, helps me fall asleep without meds.
The amount I use for this is definitely more than recommended and it irritates my skin a little when I fall asleep with it, but I only use it for severe pain and the little irritation (a pimple or two or sometimes a little dry spot) is definitely worth it then!!!
I use a lot of these tools too! Especially number 5. I’m really in to Podcasts right now.
YES! You’re the first person I’ve seen who knows what Cefaly is! I’ve been using mine for a year now and while I don’t feel any different preventative-wise, I definitely feel a difference when its a bad pain day. Having it on for an hour can seriously get rid of the spike and just chill me out. Add an ice pack after I’m done and that’s the most effective regimen that works for me.
I absolutely love all these Natalie!! Ice is my best friend too, I have a band that holds the ice pack on my head, and I stole the old sock holding the ice pack idea from you ages ago and it makes it a lot less harsh! So thank you for that ☺️
I’m thinking of investing in a Cefaly after reading this post.
I’ve also found gentle stretching invaluable because as you say my body seems to tense up so much with a migraine, but I’ve now introduced a specific neck/shoulder sequence in my stretches routine and it really really helps! Maybe not the migraine per say, just simply feeling looser and more relaxed.
My mum bought me a “4head” balm and these migraine “cooling strips”, but to be honest they seem to mild for the pain and haven’t touched it – ice is still so much more effective.
I’ve read so much about 4 specific supplements that help some people with migraines: magnesium, CQ10, B2/riboflavin, and Feverfew. I already take magnesium and do find Epsom salt baths help some types of my migraines, and I’ve just bought the other three supplements (desperate times = desperate measures!!). I’m introducing them one by one to take in the mornings with breakfast as my migraines are with me when I wake up. Apparently they take up to 3 months to see results (if they work for you), so it’s a waiting game now I guess!
Other things I find useful are my lumie clock: absolutely HEAVEN for the eyes. As well as fairy lights, so much less harsh. Sunglasses are also always a must, and when I go to the batheroom etc I use candle light to guide me so the overhead lights so send me spinning!
In terms of mindfulness, I once found this meditation which said about how when we’re in pain we always focus on the area that’s hurts, so consciously make an effort to find an area of the body that is pain free, even if it is literally an ear, or a toe. It really puts it into perspective and draws your mind away from the overcrowding pain in the head.
Anyway I’ve rambled on enough, you can probably tell this post was SO timely for me. Although I’ll probably realise I missed somethinmg vital haha! Will keep checking in to see everyone else’s comments!
Love to you always girl, (Mindfully) Evie xxxxx
I just learned of your blog reading an article you wrote for Mantra Wellness magazine. I’m so grateful that I did.
I have found over the years that sometimes I respond better to heat than cold – especially the throbbing migraines that seem to intensify when laying down. I wrap a heating pad (on high) around my head and then weigh it down with a couple of pillows and an arm thrown over the whole thing – this sometimes takes enough of the edge off to allow me to fall asleep.