It’s not just a bad headache. Migraine is a neurologically based illness that runs in families and is the 3rd most common disease in the world. Women are three times more likely to have migraine than men, and it is most common between the ages of 18 and 55. These are our most active and busy years, so this illness takes a big toll on the family life and the careers of those affected. 

Most sufferers will have an episode once or twice a month, but more than 4 million people have a chronic daily migraine, with at least 15 migraine days per month, and over 90% cannot work or function in their daily life during a migraine.

Episodic or Chronic

Although each person with migraine has unique symptoms, there are two general categories – the episodic migraine, with occurrences fewer than 15 days a month, and chronic migraine, with attacks becoming so frequent the condition becomes truly disabling. And for both types, bad head pain is not the only symptom. Often there are visual disturbances called “migraine with aura” or “ocular migraine,” where one sees jagged lines, colors, shimmering, or black spots (scotomas) in the field of vision. 

These effects are usually experienced before the onset of the headache and can last up to an hour. Other symptoms can occur in this pre-headache phase– fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and cognitive problems with recall and language. Some people experience a pins and needles sensation in their arms and pressure in their sinuses, which can be symptoms of other conditions and make diagnosis more difficult.

Then comes the throbbing headache, usually on one side of the head, which can last hours or days. People become very sensitive to light and to sound. They just want to crawl into bed in a dark, quiet room. This leaves most people feeling totally exhausted, and their mental confusion can take a day or so to resolve. There are some people who get the pre-headache symptoms and not the headache itself.

What are the Causes?

New theories about migraine’s triggers involve waves of brain activity and chemicals such as serotonin and estrogen. Serotonin affects communication between nerve cells, and also the narrowing of blood vessels throughout the body. Our old friend estrogen is why more women suffer from migraine than men starting at puberty. Some women only have headaches during the first part of their menstrual cycle, and for many, migraine symptoms improve after menopause. Pregnancy can temporarily relieve migraine episodes–or make them worse. Experts are still unsure of exactly how hormones affect blood vessel dilation and nerve responses that contribute to the illness. 

I advise my patients to try and keep track of what triggers their migraines, so they can try to prevent them. 

Migraine Triggers:

  • Foods with preservatives
  • Changes in the weather
  • Lack of sleep or changes in your sleep/wake cycle
  • Skipping meals
  • Bright or Flashing lights
  • Alcohol
  • Just before a period
  • Foods with preservatives
  • Caffeine or lack of caffeine
  • Medications such as the birth control pill
  • Strong smells
  • Stress

No matter what triggers your migraines, you need relief and quickly. As a nurse practitioner, I’ve seen that if people wait to treat their migraine, it can become more difficult to get the pain under control. 

You can read more in my blog The Latest Migraine Treatments.

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