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What Is a Migraine?

25 Sep

A migraine is a headache with throbbing pain that is usually worse on one side of the head. The pain is often severe enough to hamper daily activities and may last from four hours to three days if untreated. More than one in 10 Americans, including one in 6 women, have migraines, but many have been told mistakenly that they have a sinus or tension headache. Foods, stress, and hormones can be migraine triggers.

Migraine Symptoms

Throbbing pain typically occurs on one side near the temples, forehead, and eyes. Migraines can make you very sensitive to light, sound, or mild exertion, such as climbing the stairs. Many people have nausea, vomiting, or vision problems. The pain can be disabling, forcing people to miss work or other activities.

Migraine With Aura

About 20% of people who suffer from migraines will have an aura about 20 minutes to an hour before the pain. They may see flashing lights, wavy lines, or dots, or they may have blurry vision or blind spots. These are called “classic migraines

Migraine Warning Signs

Some people may have a change in mood before a migraine begins. They may become more excitable or irritable or depressed. Others may detect a sensation, such as a funny smell or taste. They may feel more fatigued, yawn frequently, or experience muscle tension. About 1 in 4 people experience this prodrome phase, which can occur as early as 24 hours before any head pain.

What Causes a Migraine?

The exact cause of migraines is still not well understood, but the problem is considered to be neurological (related to the nervous system). It is believed that brain chemicals, blood vessels, and nerves of the brain are involved.

Trigger: Flashing Lights

Migraines may be set off by some specific cause, such as flickering lights. This could be a reflection from snow or water or from fluorescent bulbs or television or movie screens. Wearing polarizing sunglasses outside and using daylight spectrum fluorescent bulbs inside may help.

Trigger: Anxiety and Stress

Emotional stress is a common trigger of migraines. While it’s impossible to completely avoid stress, relaxation exercises can help you cope. Inhale and exhale slowly, letting the air fill you and then deflate like a balloon. Some people find that thinking of a peaceful scene or listening to favorite music can help.

Trigger: Lack of Food or Sleep

It’s important for people prone to migraines to have a regular pattern of meals and sleep. Low blood sugar from skipping meals can trigger a migraine. Eating too much sugar also can cause a spike, then a “crash” in blood sugar. Drink water throughout the day to avoid dehydration and sleep at least 6 to 8 hours a night.

Trigger: Hormonal Changes

For many women, migraines are tied to their menstrual cycle, occurring either a few days before or during their period, when estrogen levels drop. Some women may benefit from anti-inflammatory medication before their headaches begin, or hormonal birth control such as pills, patches, or rings. Others may have no benefit or worse migraines with hormonal birth control.

Trigger: Headache Foods

Migraine sufferers often report that certain foods trigger their headaches. Common culprits include MSG, red wine, cheese, chocolate, soy sauce, and processed meats. However, scientific studies haven’t confirmed any particular food as a migraine trigger.

Trigger: Tyramine

Aged, fermented, and stored foods have higher levels of tyramine, a substance created from the breakdown of the amino acid tyrosine. Tyramine may cause blood vessels to constrict then expand, and it may be a trigger for some migraines. Some headache experts advise limiting fermented or aged foods, such as cheese, soy sauce, pickles, and pepperoni.

Caffeine: Help or Hindrance?

When combined with some pain medications, caffeine can help provide relief. Most migraine sufferers can drink a cup or two a day of coffee without any problems. However, too much caffeine can lead to headaches when the stimulant effect wears off.

Tracking Personal Triggers

Find out what triggers your migraines by keeping a headache diary. Each time you suffer from a migraine, make a note about the warning signs (the “prodrome”), triggers, and severity. If you can discover some of your personal triggers, you may be able to avoid future headaches.

Who Gets Migraines?

Women are three times more likely to have migraines than men. If you have a close relative with migraines, you are much more likely to have migraines, too. Experts believe migraines may be related to mutations in genes that affect certain areas of the brain. Migraine is also more common among people who have epilepsy, depression, asthma, anxiety, stroke, and some other neurologic and hereditary disorders.

Migraines in Children

About 5% of the children with headache problems suffer from migraines. Both boys and girls can get migraines, but after puberty they are more common among girls. Children may have symptoms other than headache, including stomach pain (abdominal migraine) or forceful and frequent vomiting (cyclic vomiting). If young children become wobbly on their feet, pale, and fussy, or have involuntary eye movements or vomiting, they may have a form of migraine called benign paroxysmal vertigo.

Diagnosing Migraine

Migraines are diagnosed primarily from symptoms, but your doctor may want to do a brain scan to rule out other causes of your headache, such as a brain tumor or bleeding in the brain. A CT scan uses special X-rays to create cross-sectional images of the brain. An MRI uses radio frequency pulses and a magnetic field to create images of the brain.

Treatment: Preventive Medicines

If your migraines are frequent or very severe, you may need to take a medicine every day to prevent attacks.

Alternative Therapy: Biofeedback

Biofeedback and relaxation training can give you relief that is similar to the help you get from medications. Biofeedback uses a monitor to train you to recognize the onset of muscle tension and changes in body temperature that are signals of stress.

Alternative Therapy: Homeopathy

 

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