If you’re prone to migraines, you know just how debilitating the syndrome can be. When a migraine strikes, you’d probably do just about anything to find relief, and prevent it from happening again.
Aside from taking your prescribed migraine medication regularly and maintaining a healthy lifestyle—that means getting enough sleep, managing your stress levels, and eating a well-rounded diet—it’s also helpful to be able to detect migraine symptoms early, which may help you find faster relief when a migraine does strike.
“If you can treat migraines early, they’re more likely to respond to treatment,” says Mark Green, MD, a neurologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “We try to get people to identify the earliest symptoms of their migraine attack.”
Migraine pain is more difficult to treat once it sets in, because as the migraine advances, more of the brain is “recruited” in the migraine attack, says Dr. Green.
The Migraine Symptom Timeline
A migraine is divided into four phases, all of which may be present during the attack.
Prodrome is the first phase, when a person might feel subtle signs hinting that a migraine is coming. These symptoms occur up to 48 hours prior to developing a migraine. During this phase, a person may feel:
“That [mild] pain is often one-sided, it’s often around the eye, and may begin as a pressure-like feeling, particularly if that’s the side where people experience their more severe attacks,” says Dr. Green.
Aura is the second phase, for some people—only 20 percent of people who suffer from migraines have aura. During an aura, a person may see flashing or bright lights, zig-zag lines, or what looks like heat waves immediately prior to or during the migraine.
The migraine headache is the third, which usually starts gradually and builds in intensity.
Postdrome is the feeling people get following the headache. People are often exhausted or confused following their migraine episode.
How to Treat a Migraine Early
“Migraine warning signs vary from person to person, and can vary within the same person as well,” says Dr. Green.
To help you detect migraine symptoms early, it may be helpful to keep a headache diary. This can help you pinpoint your triggers and how you’re feeling each day so you can start to learn what symptoms may be alerting you to a migraine.
When you feel a migraine coming on, track your headache pain from 0 (no pain) to 3 (worst pain) in the morning, afternoon, and evening each day until you find relief. You can also write down any lifestyle changes (good or bad), such as your sleep habits, what foods you ate, or if you smoked, and what medicine you took and whether or not it helped.
If you suspect a migraine coming on, here’s what you can do to help relieve it:
For mild migraines, your doctor might have suggested an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, like acetaminophen (example brand name: Tylenol), ibuprofen (example brand names: Advil, Motrin), naproxen (example brand name: Aleve), or OTC meds that combine acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (example brand name: Excedrin).
For more severe migraines, your doctor may have given you a prescription medicine. Doctors often prescribe medications to help treat individual migraine attacks, as well as medications to reduce the number of attacks, says Dr. Green.
Important: It’s a myth that you should treat frequent migraines on your own with non-prescription pain medicines. Taking non-prescription pain medicines too often may actually cause more headaches later. “So the earlier [you take your meds] the better, as long as it’s not very often, where you’re at risk of developing medication overuse headache,” says Dr. Green. Learn about more common migraine myths.
Whether you feel a migraine coming on or you’re already experiencing an attack, there are certain things you can do at home that may also make you feel better, such as: