Opioids and Migraine Treatment

July 27th, 2020

Opiod Alternatives

While the coronavirus pandemic has taken center stage during most of the year, there is another epidemic wreaking havoc in the United States: the opioid epidemic. In 2017 alone, more than 70,000 Americans died of opioid-related drug overdoses – a 45% increase from the previous year.

The opioid epidemic has become such a big problem that in 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared it a public health emergency and proposed a 5-point strategy to address the crisis that’s still going strong.

Synthetic (man-made) opioids are prescribed to manage pain after surgeries and are sometimes prescribed to patients who suffer from chronic or severe pain. And since the 1990s, illicit opioids manufactured by illegal pharmaceutical laboratories became a popular recreational drug.

The main problem with these drugs is that they are highly potent and very addictive; one of the most powerful synthetic opioids, fentanyl, is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. In the United States, more fatal drug overdoses are caused by fentanyl and synthetic opioids than any other type of drug.

But despite years of data showing that opioids are incredibly addictive, and not as safe as we once thought, many healthcare practitioners continue to prescribe these drugs for problems like mild to severe pain, and migraine headaches.

The issue? In addition to being highly addictive, long-term use of opioids can lead to tolerance. That means that the longer your body is exposed to opioids, the less effective they will be at relieving your migraine. It also means that regular opioid use can make your migraines longer and more painful.

Opioids as a Migraine Treatment

When researchers in the 19th century first isolated the specific compound of the poppy plant that alleviates pain and makes people ‘high,’ they named it morphine after Morpheus, the god of dreams. At the time, it was a revolutionary discovery. Experts weren’t aware of the dangers that the new class of drugs posed, and many people, including hundreds of thousands of soldiers who received morphine for pain during the Civil War, became addicted.

As early as 1900, Americans – and people in places where opioids were prevalent – were already abusing these medications, crushing pills and inhaling them for recreational use. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act in the U.S. banned the recreational use of opioids and made them available by prescription only. By 1986, the World Health Organization recommended opioids only as a last resort painkiller and advised medical professionals to look for non-addictive treatment options for pain.

Migraines have always been tricky to treat. Partly because there hasn’t been enough research to fully understand the mechanisms that cause these headaches, and partly because only recently new classes of medications are becoming more effective, over the years, opioids became one of the most common migraine treatments prescribed by doctors.

According to a 2014 review published in the medical journal Headache, opioids are used and prescribed to migraine patients in over 50 percent of emergency department visits. That is despite evidence suggesting that dedicated migraine drugs like triptans are more effective at treating these headaches.

But it is not just the emergency department where opioid use is still prevalent. Another study published in 2017, found that out of 2,866 migraine patients who visited their doctor for headache relief, 15 percent were prescribed opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Opioid use is associated with poor health outcomes. At lower doses, opioids can make you feel tired and sleepy, which increases the risk of motor vehicle and workplace accidents. At higher doses, however, opioids may slow down your heart rate significantly, which can lead to death. They also tend to worsen migraine pain down the line by changing how your brain reacts to pain.

Drug-Free Natural Remedies

When a migraine strikes, most people reach for a prescription or over-the-counter medication for quick migraine relief. But multiple natural remedies can also help you manage migraine attacks. These are a few drug-free alternatives to reduce migraine symptoms:


Magnesium is an abundant natural mineral that can be found in different kinds of foods and dietary supplements. It is necessary for healthy bodily function as it promotes heart health, stabilizes blood pressure, regulates nerve and muscle function and builds bone, DNA and protein. Magnesium is intimately involved in the control of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptors which play an important role in pain transmission in the nervous system and in the regulation of cerebral blood flow.  Low levels of magnesium have been shown to contribute to headaches and migraines. In fact, research shows that many migraine sufferers also have lower levels of magnesium and that taking magnesium supplements can be effective at reducing the frequency and severity of attacks.


Also known as vitamin B-2, riboflavin plays a vital role in red blood cell formation and other essential functions. Riboflavin is present in many foods, especially dairy products, and red meat, although it can also be found in salmon, tuna, almonds, and grains. Research suggests that supplementing with high dose riboflavin can decrease the severity of migraine attacks among chronic migraineurs. In fact, in a review of 11 clinical trials testing the effectiveness of riboflavin at preventing migraines, nine studies confirmed that this vitamin, both by itself and combined with other nutraceuticals, was successful at avoiding migraines in many patients.

Research has shown that a mitochondrial defect may reduce an individual’s threshold to migraine triggers and lead to migraines. A deficiency of mitochondrial energy reserves has been observed in many people exhibiting poor cerebrovascular tone. Riboflavin is a water-soluble vitamin that helps the body convert food to energy.  It is a precursor of flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) and flavin mononucleotide (FMN ) which unlike CoQ10 are involved in all three cellular energy production processes; glycolysis, Krebs cycle and electron transport. At the proper dose, riboflavin helps maintain healthy mitochondrial energy reserves which is very beneficial to migraine sufferers.


Feverfew is a flowering plant native to the Balkan peninsula and has been a popular herbal remedy for centuries. Historians believe that Ancient Greeks used feverfew to reduce inflammation and treat cramps, and this member of the daisy family was once dubbed the “medieval aspirin” because of its ability to reduce fever and ease pain. Feverfew is also a popular natural remedy used to improve migraine symptoms, arthritis, and it can even help eliminate certain types of intestinal parasites.

Commonly recommended for its ability to support cerebrovascular tone and function, this plant contains parthenolide, which studies suggest are very beneficial to migraines sufferers. Feverfew has been known to inhibit blood platelet aggregation (the clumping/sticking together of blood platelets). Over aggregating of platelets in the blood appear just before a migraine, forcing a release of serotonin. Serotonin causes the blood vessel to constrict, leading to head pain.


Also known as Indian frankincense, Boswellia extract is a known natural anti-inflammatory and analgesic that has shown promising effects on patients suffering from chronic headaches. Boswellia extract comes from the Boswellia serrata tree, and it is extracted by tapping the tree and drawing out the resin inside.


Ginger is a popular cooking ingredient in Asian cuisines that gives foods and beverages a pleasant warm taste. As a natural remedy, research studies have shown that ginger can help reduce inflammation and ease pain in people with arthritis and joint pain. There is also evidence that ginger is very effective in treating  nausea, making it an ideal natural alternative for easing the characteristic upset stomach symptoms that come with migraines.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are highly concentrated botanical extracts. They are made by pressing or steaming the most aromatic part of the plant until they are left with a reduced extract. It often takes several pounds of a single plant to make one essential oil bottle, which means that these liquids are incredibly potent.

People often use essential oils in one of two ways: inhaled or applied to the skin topically. Because oils release scent molecules, they travel through the nose to the brain, triggering emotional responses from the amygdala. Depending on the plant, diluted essential oils may help reduce inflammation, manage pain, and help with relaxation.

Lavender, peppermint, and spearmint essential oils have been shown to reduce stress, induce sleep, and improve migraine and headache symptoms.

Cold Compresses and Ice Packs for Migraine Relief (Do-It-Yourself Gel Ice Pack Recipe)

Applying an Ice Pack to the head or back of the neck is an effective migraine remedy for many migraine sufferers and there are no known side-effects.  Ice is often the ‘go-to’ to treat pain and inflammation, so it makes to apply it to your head for soothing a migraine.  Put the compress on your head for 15 minutes, then remove it for 15 minutes.

Recipe for slushy and flexible COLD PACKS:


  • 1 part Rubbing Alcohol
  • 3 parts Water


  1. You can make each bag separately, pouring directly into the bag, or you can mix up your parts into a large mixing bowl, stir and fill each bag.
  2. Fill bags 3/4 full and zip lock trying to avoid trapping too much air.
  3. Place in your freezer.
  4. Ready for use in 8 hours.

Notes – Do not leave small children unsupervised. Rubbing Alcohol is toxic if consumed.

This cold pack is recommended by physical therapists, is inexpensive, works perfectly, stays flexible and slushy, is less messy if there is a leak and is very inexpensive.
You can double bag (two zip lock bags) to be extra cautious or just double bag if the first bag begins to leak.

The Bottom Line:

Finding natural remedy to help you avoid opiate use, and treat the symptoms of a headache or a migraine can mean the difference between experiencing manageable and severe pain.  It is always best to speak with your doctor before starting a new regimen and if  over-the-counter treatments and home remedies don’t provide headache and migraine relief to your satisfaction.