Migraines — An Overview

Everyone has experienced a regular headache now and again. It’s not fun but it generally doesn’t last too long. A migraine is a different beast altogether. About 18% of women and 6% of men in the USA and Western Europe suffer from migraines1. So what differentiates a migraine from a run of the mill headache? A migraine is generally more intense, often affects just one side of the head, can last for days, recurs and can be accompanied by additional symptoms.

The Symptoms Of Migraines

Migraines are characterized by moderate to severe pain, often throbbing on one side of the head. There are a number of symptoms associated with migraines, which can occur before, during and after:

Hypersensitivity to light, sounds and/or smells

Temporary vision disturbances such as vision loss, seeing spots or flashing lights

Pain intensification with physical activity

Nausea and sometimes stomach ache and vomiting or diarrhea

Temperature fluctuations, sweating

Upshot: Not fun.

Migraine Causes

Researchers are still trying to solve the riddle of what causes migraines. Genetics may be a factor while additional theories focus on aberrations in brain-chemical levels — including serotonin which contributes to pain governance in the nervous system; and reciprocal effects between the brain and the trigeminal nerve (a primary pain pathway).

Upshot: The jury is still out.

Migraine Triggers

Since the underlying causes are elusive, a next-best strategy for averting migraines is to be aware of what can set them off:

Particular Foods — Eating salty or highly processed foods (think salami) or aged food (cheese for example) can be a migraine trigger.

Certain Additives — Aspartame and MSG (monosodium glutamate, a preservative found in many foods) are possible triggers.

Drinks — Beverages with high levels of caffeine or even regular levels of alcohol (wine notably) can set off migraines.

Stress — Stress, whether at home or on the job, can be a migraine trigger2.

Sensory Stimulation — Prevalent triggers include bright lights, sun glare, loud sounds and strong smells from stimulants like perfume, paint thinner and secondhand smoke.

Hormonal Shifts — Estrogen level variations in women3 may induce migraines. Women with migraine history often experience them in conjunction with a large drop in estrogen, which happens as a normal part of the menstrual cycle. Similarly, estrogen shifts during pregnancy and menopause may also be trigger them.

Irregular Sleep — Too little4 or too much sleep may provoke migraines.

Medications — Birth control medication and hormone replacement therapies may trigger or exacerbate a migraine.

Upshot: Ditch these as much as possible.

Risk Factors

There are a number of elements that are associated with a greater likelihood of having migraines:

Gender — If you’re a woman you’re three times as likely to suffer from migraines than if you’re a man.

Age — The first occurrence of a migraine can happen at any age. However, their frequency tends to increase through one’s 20s and 30s, after which they generally are less frequent5.

Family History — You’re more likely to get migraines if you have family members who suffer from them.

Upshot: Not much you can do about these.


If you suspect you have migraine headaches see your family doctor who can make the diagnosis and suggest treatments. These may include pain-relieving medications and those that work to prevent migraines.

Among the latter some studies suggest supplements containing the herbs feverfew6 and butterbur7 may help thwart migraines although the results have been inconsistent.

Check with your doctor before taking these supplements.

Upshot: There is hope and relief.


Lipton RB, Bigal ME, Diamond M, Freitag F, Reed ML, Stewart WF, AMPP Advisory Group: Migraine prevalence, disease burden, and the need for preventive therapy. Neurology 2007, 68: 343–349. 10.1212/01.wnl.0000252808.97649.21







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James Yougler is a blogger, writer, and content creator at http://consumereview.org/. Jame’s last post was a review of Research Verified.

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