When you have a migraine, every minute can seem like an eternity. It would be really great if your brain would wrap up the whole thing ASAP, but migraines can unfortunately last for much longer than they should have any right to do. We had experts explain why this is, plus if there’s anything you can do to get rid of your migraines more quickly. (Good news: There are definitely some options out there.)
Migraines are one of those weird health conditions that doctors know exists but still can’t fully figure out, especially when it comes to the cause.
It could be that there are aberrations how in your brainstem communicates with your trigeminal nerve, an important pain messenger in your body, the Mayo Clinic says. Or maybe some of your brain chemicals that help regulate pain, like serotonin, are out of whack, again looping in that good ol’ trigeminal nerve to cause discomfort. Scientists still aren’t sure.
Although the cause of migraines may be hazy, this much is clear: They can be excruciating, causing a severe throbbing sensation in your head along with issues like nausea, vomiting, and an extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also experience aura, which are sensory disturbances often having to do with your vision, so you might see mirages of wavy lines, flashes of light, and other weirdness.
While classic migraines cause intense pain, some may only crash into your life with symptoms such as visual changes or intense dizziness. Whether or not your migraines come with pain, common triggers include stress, caffeine, hormonal fluctuations, and the weather.
Migraines can last for up to six days, which is appalling but not a guarantee. It depends on how many of the four migraine stages you experience.
Every potential migraine phase tends to last for a certain amount of time, and you may not deal with all of them. Here’s a quick run-down of each:
Prodrome: This is basically your body’s way of sounding the impending-migraine alarm. You might notice subtle warning signs one or two days before a migraine hits, like constipation, mood changes (ranging from depression to euphoria), food cravings, a stiff neck, being thirsty and peeing more than usual, and yawning a lot, the Mayo Clinic says.
Aura: Aura can happen before a migraine or while you’re actually having one, but the point is that they often cause those visual disturbances that can make your eyesight go bonkers. Sometimes, though, they can impact your other senses, so you might hear things that aren’t there or feel like someone’s touching you, for example.
This typically lasts for up to 60 minutes, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Attack: Well, you can probably guess what happens here, in arguably the worst part of the migraine. During this stage, you can experience why-won’t-it-end pain and those other troublesome symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or touch, blurry vision, and lightheadedness and fainting. Basically, it’s really, really terrible, and it can last anywhere from four to 72 hours. “Usually, the pain [starts and] stops on the same day, but I’ve had some patients who say that the pain put them down for several days,” Medhat Mikhael, M.D., a pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF.
Post-drome: This is known as the “migraine hangover” for a good reason: You’ve made it out on the other side of the attack and might feel completely drained, weak, dizzy, moody or confused, and still have some remaining sensitivity to light and sound. Or, if your brain really wants to do you a solid, you might feel a surge of elation as your migraine recedes. Either way, this stage usually lasts for up to 24 hours, according to the NINDS.
If you tally all that up, you’re talking a possible six days for the total migraine experience from start to finish, which…whew. But, like most health conditions, there’s a lot of variation in here. You may not deal with all of the stages every time you have a migraine, and even if you do, you might start to see some variation in how long they last as you experiment with treatments to cut down on your pain and other symptoms.
Some migraine treatments aim to halt the pain after it’s started, but others are supposed to stop it from happening at all.
If you don’t have good interventional medication meant to stop a migraine that’s already started as quickly as possible, you could be setting yourself up for longer, more painful experiences, Kevin Weber, M.D., a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. This type of medication is known as acute or abortive treatment, the NINDS explains. It consists of options like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and over-the-counter migraine drugs, along with prescription meds such as triptans, which make your blood vessels constrict and block pain pathways in your brain, and ergots, which decrease how many pain messages your nerves can transmit.
If you have severe migraines and pain-relievers don’t seem to help, there are preventive medications available, like beta blockers, which work by reducing your blood pressure, and tricyclic antidepressants, which affect the levels of serotonin and other brain chemicals, according to the NINDS. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new preventive drug that impedes the activity of calcitonin gene-related peptide, a molecule linked with the migraine experience.
Even if you think you’ve got a handle on the medication aspect, you also need to know your triggers, Dr. Mikhael says, since continued, repeated exposure can cause more migraines. If you’re having trouble figuring out what sets off your migraines, it may be helpful to keep a journal for a few weeks (or however long it takes to have a few episodes) to see if you and your doctor can chart a pattern.
Finally, if you’re taking some kind of migraine medication and your pain still isn’t tolerable or your treatment doesn’t help enough, be frank with your doctor instead of trying to suck it up. They might be able to put you on a different treatment or identify certain lifestyle changes you can make to quell your migraines, like cutting back on caffeine or sticking with a better sleep schedule. You shouldn’t have to lose entire hours, much less days, of your life to this health condition.