If you suffer from migraine headaches, sleepless nights may be all too common an occurrence in your life. It’s nearly impossible to fall asleep when your head is throbbing, and the lack of sleep only makes the next morning worse.
Read on to learn more about how to get out of this vicious cycle, get better sleep, and improve your migraines.
What Is a Migraine?
A migraine is a type of severe headache that’s often accompanied by other symptoms, including nausea and light and sound sensitivity. Migraines are often quite severe and disabling to those who suffer from them. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic notes that migraine is the “sixth most disabling disease in the world.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, migraine is a genetic neurological disease experienced by 12% of people. While anyone can theoretically experience migraine, genetic factors and gender dramatically impact risk. According to a study published in Neurology, women are two to three times more likely than men to experience migraines, and they experience more severe symptoms and longer duration.
Common Migraine Symptoms
The course and symptoms of a migraine vary from person to person. Common symptoms of a migraine headache include:
- Severe, throbbing pain, often localized to one side of the head
- Queasiness and throwing up
- Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
- Worsening of symptoms with movement
- Pain lasting for hours to days
Migraines can consist of four stages‒prodrome, aura, migraine, and postdrome‒although many people with migraine headaches do not experience all of these stages.
Prodrome can occur hours or days before the onset of pain. It can include food cravings, muscle tension, trouble concentrating, and many more symptoms. For some people, a warning symptom known as an aura occurs after prodrome and before migraine. An aura includes visual disturbances such as blind spots or flashes of light.
After the migraine, postdrome is a period lasting 1-2 days during which some people have trouble concentrating, feel fatigued, and have emotional disturbances such as depression or euphoria.
Migraine vs Headache
A headache refers to any pain in the head, scalp, or neck, while a migraine is a specific type of headache with characteristic symptoms. There are two types of headaches–primary headaches, which are not caused by a secondary medical condition, and secondary headaches, which are. Migraines are a type of primary headache.
Migraines are generally more severe than headaches and last longer. They are typically worse on one side of the head than the other, and often involve additional symptoms such as nausea and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. In addition, migraines can consist of the stages of prodrome, aura, migraine, and postdrome, while other types of headaches do not contain these stages.
What Causes Migraines?
While the cause of migraine attacks is not fully understood, genetic factors and gender play a significant role in one’s likelihood of suffering from this disorder. For people who experience migraines, certain triggers will make them more likely to occur. These can include:
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Certain medications, like birth control and blood pressure medication
- Foods, including aged cheeses and processed or salty foods
- Getting too much or too little sleep
- Weather changes
- Food additives, such as MSG
- Intense sensory stimuli, such as bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells
Migraine is a chronic condition, though it impacts different people more and less frequently. Some people experience chronic migraines, which occur 15 or more days per month for at least three months. Migraines can be disabling, and chronic migraines even more so, and should be discussed with a trusted healthcare provider.
How to Treat a Migraine
Anyone with migraine headaches knows that getting rid of them is no simple feat. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some ways you can try to ease or avoid the pain. Always consult your doctor or another trusted medical provider before beginning any new migraine treatment.
Methods of migraine treatment fall into two categories: preventive and abortive. Because migraine is a chronic condition, some people with frequent migraines may choose to take a daily prescription medication to prevent migraines. For others, taking a pill the moment signs or symptoms appear to “abort” the migraine’s progress is a better route.
Some of the medications used to treat a migraine headache include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Excedrin Migraine and Advil Migraine
- Triptans (abortive prescription migraine medications)
- Anti-seizure medications
- Calcitonin gene-related monoclonal antibodies
Of course, not everyone wants to depend on prescription medication. And there are many for whom it simply isn’t enough. Many holistic treatments for migraine exist, including:
- Massage therapy
- Chiropractic care
- Yoga and meditation
- Herbal supplements
- Diet changes
It’s important to speak to a trusted doctor or another healthcare provider before trying any new migraine treatment, whether you choose a medical or a holistic approach. Some natural remedies can interact with medications or have other associated risks or side effects.
How to Sleep with a Migraine
Sleep and migraine are inextricably linked. According to a 2018 review article in Therapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders, the connection is bidirectional, meaning migraines can keep you from sleeping, and not sleeping well can trigger migraines.
So how can you work to improve your sleep so that you prevent migraine attacks? And what can you do if you already have a migraine?
The answers are similar. Creating an ideal sleep environment and a consistent sleep schedule can help you prevent migraines, while also building a routine to help you sleep even when your head is pounding.
Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), keeping a consistent sleep schedule is one of the most important steps you can take to get better sleep. Unfortunately, even something that seems like self care in the moment, like sleeping in on the weekends, can actually do more harm than good.
Work on developing a sleep routine so that you can more easily fall and stay asleep around the same time every night and wake up at the same time each morning.
Sleep in a Dark Room
Did you know that even the light from an alarm clock or the moon shining through the window can disrupt your circadian rhythm? For the best possible sleep quality, try to get your bedroom as dark as possible. Blackout curtains can help keep outside light away, while a quality sleep mask will protect you from sneaky sources of light from electronics.
Eliminate All Noise
If you feel a migraine coming on, chances are, you want to get as far away from light and sound as possible. But if you live in a busy city or with family members or roommates, this may be easier said than done. Since sound can make migraine symptoms worse, do what you can to minimize sound in your bedroom. Using high-quality earplugs can also help keep noise at bay.
Turn Off All Digital Devices
Blue light that comes from our digital devices is notorious for messing with the circadian rhythm and ruining sleep quality. If you can’t bear to be without your laptop or smartphone in the hours before bed, slip on a pair of blue light blocking glasses. Ideally, you shouldn’t look at any screens in the hour before bedtime.
Avoid Caffeine and/or Alcohol
Most people know that caffeine late in the day is a bad idea when it comes to getting to bed on time. But did you know that alcohol also disrupts your sleep? Both caffeine and alcohol within eight hours of bedtime keep your body from getting enough deep sleep. This means your body isn’t getting the full healing benefits of sleep, which primarily occur during this sleep phase.
It might not be easy to fully eliminate these things eight hours before bedtime, but if you suffer from migraine headaches, the tradeoff might be worth it.
Aromatherapy is a holistic practice using essential oils to promote physical and psychological well-being. Certain oils, such as lavender, are thought to have a calming effect.
You can use aromatherapy to create a calm, comforting environment before bed by adding a few drops of essential oil to a warm bath or steamy shower. Another way to incorporate aromatherapy into your nighttime routine is with an essential oil diffuser or essential oil-friendly humidifier. Be careful with diffusers if you have pets, however, as some essential oils are toxic to animals, even in small quantities.
Try a New Pillow
We’ve all woken up with neck pain after sleeping wrong, but symptoms of incorrect sleep alignment can be more subtle. In fact, if your neck is not correctly aligned while you sleep, this can contribute to head pain. Check out our blog post, Can Pillows Cause Headaches?, to figure out the best pillow for your sleep position and eliminate any head pain caused by your pillow.
Best Sleeping Position for Migraines
Ultimately, the best sleeping position when you’re actively having a migraine attack is the one you can fall asleep in. But if your body gives you any choice in the matter, try to sleep on your back or side.
To avoid exacerbating migraine attacks, sleeping on your back is best because it evenly distributes weight across your head, neck, and shoulder muscles. Stomach sleeping carries the risk of making your pain worse because of the associated neck position.
Whatever position you sleep in, make sure you’re properly supported and aligned. If you sleep on your side, try to avoid the fetal position, which brings your shoulders forward. And don’t shy away from using pillows between your legs and under your arms to get your posture just right. By keeping yourself well-aligned during sleep, you can avoid muscle strain that could trigger a migraine headache.
Does sleep help with migraines?
Getting the right amount of sleep‒not too much or too little‒is key for controlling migraines. It is also important to get a consistent amount of sleep, as changes to one’s sleep schedule can trigger a migraine attack.
How long do migraines last?
According to the Mayo Clinic, a migraine can last between 4 and 72 hours if untreated. Migraine medications can reduce the length and severity of migraine attacks for some people.
Can lack of sleep cause migraines?
Lack of sleep can absolutely trigger migraines in people who are prone to them. The amount of sleep every person needs differs slightly based on age, hormones, and genetic factors, but 7-9 hours is a good place to start.