Migraine: More Than Just a Headache

Most people have experienced a headache in their life at one time or another. Usually, taking a couple of painkillers soon solves the problem, and you can carry on doing what you are doing.

A migraine attack is different. It is more than just a headache. The pain can be so bad, that it stops you from doing normal activities. In fact, trying to carry on can make your symptoms feel worse. Most sufferers of migraines feel pain on one side of the head, but it can also be felt all over. You may also have nausea, vomiting, and be very sensitive to light, sounds or smells.

You may notice some symptoms for up to a day before a migraine attack actually begins. You may feel especially tired, however some people report feeling restless, or even full of energy. You may crave sweet food or feel particularly thirsty. This period is called the prodromal phase, and can warn you that an attack is about to begin.

About a quarter of migraine sufferers experience an ‘aura’ before they experience a headache, or as the headache is appearing. The aura phase can last from a few minutes up to an hour. You may notice changes in vision, like zig-zag lines starting on one side of your vision before moving across to affect the other side. Many other people report other visual symptoms, such as flashing lights, black spots, tunnel vision or even temporary blindness. Other aura symptoms that you might experience include numbness, pins and needles, weakness on one side of the body or the feeling of dizziness.

Once you feel the headache, the migraine attack can last between four hours and three days. It may take you a few days to fully recover after an attack. Most people recover completely between their attacks (episodic migraine), but some people feel symptoms more often than not (chronic migraine).

Migraines affect one in seven people worldwide. It is three times more common in women. If you are not directly affected by migraine, it is likely that you know someone who is. Despite migraines being so common, and often so disabling, it is often overlooked and undertreated, and just thought of as nothing more than a bad headache.

What can I do to help myself?

Keep a headache diary

One of the most useful ways of learning about how your migraine behaves is by keeping a headache diary. It is a good idea to record the time and date you experience a headache, how long it lasts, other symptoms and what, if any, medications you took to treat it. By noting down things that you think might cause the migraine, you may be able to spot patterns. The information captured in a headache diary can greatly help your doctor to diagnose and treat your headache.

Identify and avoid triggers

A trigger is an event or factor that results in a migraine. Triggers are not the same for everybody and each person has triggers that are more or less relevant to them. It is rare for a single trigger to cause a migraine, it is more usual for several triggers to act together over a few days to bring out a migraine. If you suspect certain triggers are affecting for you, it is a good idea to cut them out for a few weeks one at a time to see if it helps.

Common triggers

Sleep

The role of sleep in migraines is complex. Lack of sleep is often involved with a migraine, however many people notice that sleeping in for longer than usual can also trigger a migraine. You may want to try and keep to a fixed routine of going to bed and getting up in the morning at the same time each day, including at weekends.

Emotional stress

There is a close link between emotional stress and migraines. Some people find that their migraine is exacerbated at times of stress, however others find that their migraine worsens as they start to relax after a very stressful period. This might explain why some people experience headaches after meeting a deadline, or on the first days of their holiday.

Food

Certain foods such as chocolate, caffeine and citrus fruits have been associated with migraines. It is only a good idea to restrict foods if you suspect they might be a trigger, not just because you have heard or read that they are important. Many people crave sweet food before their migraine starts, leading them to think that this is a trigger, when it is actually a prodromal symptom.

Missed meals

Missing meals can lead to a drop in blood sugar levels, which can trigger a migraine. Eating regularly, and avoiding sugary snacks can help keep your sugar levels stable and prevent migraines. If you wake up with migraine, it may be worth considering having a snack before bedtime.

Dehydration

It is recommended that you drink at least 8 glasses of water per day and avoid consuming fizzy sugary drinks. Some drinks contain the sweetener aspartame, which can trigger migraine for some people.

Alcohol

Red wine contains a chemical called tyramine which has been thought to directly cause migraines. Tyramine is also found in other foods including some soft cheeses. The evidence that links tyramine and migraines is still not clear, so you should only avoid alcohol or tyramine containing foods, if you have found that it affects your migraine.

Caffeine

Excessive caffeine may trigger migraines, though some people find that suddenly stopping caffeine altogether contributes to the onset of a migraine. If you find that you experience migraines on days that you don’t drink caffeine, it may be best if you cut down on caffeine more gradually. Caffeine is not only found in coffee and tea, but also in many other products including fizzy drinks, chocolate and also some painkillers.

Hormonal changes in women

A large proportion of women who suffer from migraines report that it is associated with their monthly menstrual cycle. Some women only experience migraines around the time of their period, this is called a menstrual migraine. The time leading up to the menopause is often associated with a worsening of migraine, in some cases this can be helped with hormonal replacement therapy. Some women find that taking a hormonal contraception can make their migraine worse, whereas others find that their migraine improves.

It takes a great deal of effort to identify triggers, however you could reduce the burden of a migraine by finding out what might trigger them and trying to avoid these things.

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Disclaimer: This blog is intended for informational purposes only. The information provided herein are gathered from various sources and Your.MD does not take any responsibility for its accuracy. Never disregard, avoid, or delay in obtaining medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional because of information or advice you received via our blog.

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