I frequently have migraine attacks, and have to take some pills to stop the pain. My question is, does a pill stop the source of an attack, or does it just stop my brain from feeling it?

Let's take a clear example:

You have a broken bone, you take a very powerful painkiller (or maybe even an injection), so you can't feel the pain in your broken arm anymore. But still, if you apply pressure on the bone, it will still damage the body, regardless of feeling it or not. So it's not curing the bone, it's just preventing you from feeling it.

Now when I have these attacks, I need to stay in the dark and rest (as you already know what a migraine attack is), and if I still continue to (for example) use my computer, it will hurt more and more with each second passing. This is an alert from my brain:

Stop doing what you are doing and rest!!

I know a simple pill won't cure a major wound or a broken arm, but still, do these medicines cure a headache, or will I still damage my body by continuing doing these things when I have an attack and take a pill which stops the pain almost instantly?

  • 3
    This is a common misunderstanding -- that there is a problem with treating a problematic symptom. Migraines are not associated with damage beyond the pain and/or other perceptual phenomena. Relieving those symptoms is equivalent to treating the problem, as the symptoms ARE the problem. Now if a headache is 2/2 a bleed or mass (i.e., not a migraine or other common headache syndrome), then treating ONLY the pain is an issue, but it is still important to treat the pain.
    – De Novo
    Oct 14, 2022 at 18:58
  • 2
    This doesn't lend itself particularly well to a full answer, but the other important tidbit here is a recognition that pain doesn't exist outside of one's brain feeling it. It's an associative cortical event, not a peripheral phenomenon.
    – De Novo
    Oct 14, 2022 at 19:22
  • @DeNovo - I believe you've oversimplified in your first comment. Sometimes the treatment for a migraine has mare effects than analgesia (e.g. sumatriptan). Oct 15, 2022 at 14:43
  • @anongoodnurse my understanding was the primary (therapeutic) target of triptans is vascular, and migraines are not simply vascular phenomena (which is why they provide pain relief, but don't necessarily relieve other perceptual disturbances) but I'm happy to be wrong, and would be interested in hearing more!
    – De Novo
    Oct 18, 2022 at 3:58
  • Another example is that many common painkillers are anti-inflammatories, so besides just masking symptoms they could in theory actually fix a problem that was due to inflammation. The first reference in nash's answer ( ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2740949 ) implies that that might be the case for migraines, according to one theory of how migraines work, but it's not clear. (In any case, as other posters have pointed out, even if the painkillers do just mask symptoms there's the question of whether migraines can cause any lasting damage. Not sure).
    – A. B.
    Oct 20, 2022 at 3:28

2 Answers 2


Are painkillers curative for migraine headaches?

No, they are not, but they are therapeutic.

Similarly to user @De Novo's comment, the main problem in migraine headaches is the pain. Although the source of the pain doesn't go away and you may still feel pain some time afterwards, symptomatic treatment of migraines with painkillers is still an effective form of management. You will not "damage" your body further by continuing whatever activity triggers the headache, you will only feel more pain. There is also the issue of adverse effects following long term use of pain medications, but that is beyond the scope of this answer.

However, relying purely on pain management in all headaches is not a good idea. Some headaches have different underlying causes, brain bleeds, lesions, hypertension, infectious and febrile illnesses, etc.

Of course preventive medicine is always the best, so if you get headaches from doing X activity, please avoid X activity.

I hope this answers your question :)


Management of migraines

Efficacy of some painkillers

Effectiveness of some current headache therapies


How do painkillers work?

When part of your body is injured, special nerve endings send pain messages back to your brain. Painkilling drugs interfere with these messages, either at the site of the injury, in the spinal cord or in the brain itself.

Many painkillers are based on one of two naturally occurring drugs: aspirin and opiates. Aspirin uses a chemical found in willow bark, used by the Ancient Greeks to relieve pain. Opiates all work in a similar way to opium, which is extracted from poppies.

Other Source: http://mentalfloss.com/article/18615/how-do-painkillers-find-kill-pain

  • 4
    There are lot more types of analgesics than aspirin and narcotics, and this doesn't actually answer the question.
    – Carey Gregory
    Feb 24, 2017 at 2:51

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