Overview and Facts
A migraine is a chronic headache that can affect an individual for hours or even days. They cause significant pain; so much that sometimes all a person can do is find a quiet place to lie down. They can last from four hours to three days. Over 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches, and 28 million of these people suffer from migraines.
There are many different types of headaches. The main difference between a regular headache and a migraine is its length and severity of pain. The following are some of the most common types of headaches:
- Tension headaches – these are the most common among adults and adolescents. Also known as chronic daily headaches, they come and go and can cause mild to moderate pain.
- Mixed headache syndrome – these headaches are also called transformed migraines, which is a combination of a migraine and tension headache.
- Cluster headaches – this headache, although the least common, is the most severe type of primary headache. Pain in a cluster headache is intense and feels as though something is burning or piercing.
- Sinus headaches – these are associated with a deep and constant pain in the bridge of the nose, forehead or cheekbones. Sinus headaches usually are concurrent with sinus symptoms.
- Acute headaches – usually occurring in children, these are headaches that occur suddenly and for the first time. Symptoms typically go away after a short period of time. The most common cause in children is a respiratory or sinus infection.
- Hormonal headaches – these occur in women and are associated with hormonal changes during pregnancy, menopause and menstruation.
Signs and Symptoms
Common migraine symptoms include:
- Moderate to severe pain on one or both sides of the head
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Pulsating head pain
- Loss of appetite
- Upset stomach or abdominal pain
Causes and Diagnosis
The exact cause of a migraine is unknown. However, it is believed that genetics and environmental factors play a role. Also, it is known that migraines are related to blood vessel contractions and other changes in the brain, as well as genetic abnormalities in certain areas of the brain. When a migraine occurs, serotonin levels drop, which can trigger the trigeminal system to release neuropeptides, which results in headache pain.
Although there is no certain cause or mechanism to migraines, there are certain things that can trigger migraines.
- Foods. These include alcohol, excessive caffeine, aged cheeses, MSG and processed foods.
- Stress. Whether work or home or family-related, stress can trigger a migraine to occur.
- Hormones. Changes in estrogen levels seem to trigger migraines in women. Women who frequently have headaches and migraines usually report them just before or during their periods. Medications such as birth control can also worsen migraines.
- Environmental changes. The weather or changes in pressure can trigger a migraine.
- Sensory stimuli. The sun, bright lights, loud sounds and certain smells can prompt migraines.
For many, migraines can go undiagnosed. Sometimes it takes a person truly recording experiences with severe headaches for them to speak to a doctor about the frequency and severity in order to get migraine treatment. If a person is experiencing what appear to be migraines, they should take note and see a doctor in order to be diagnosed.
Tests and Treatment Options
There is no single cure for migraines. However, migraines can be treated with medications. Headache and migraine medication can reduce the severity and frequency of migraines. Medications combined with possible self-help remedies and lifestyle changes can make a significant difference for a person who experiences migraine headaches.
When a person does experience migraine headaches, there are tests that can be used to attempt to find the cause of the headaches. These tests include:
- Spinal tap – a doctor may recommend a spinal tap if a condition such as meningitis is suspected as a cause of migraines. In a spinal tap, a thin needle is inserted into the vertebrae in the lower back to take a sample of cerebrospinal fluid for analysis.
- MRI – magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnet to produce detailed views of the brain. In the case of migraines, an MRI can be used to examine blood vessels that supply to the brain.
- Computerized tomography – a CT is an imaging procedure that utilizes computer X-rays that provide a cross-sectional view of the brain. Seeing this detailed picture of the brain can help doctors identify possible medical issues that may be the cause of migraines.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
At home, a person has a few options to do things that can help prevent or lessen the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. These include:
- Resting and relaxing. If a person feels a migraine coming on, it is best to relax in a dark, quiet room. An ice pack placed on the back of the neck can help, too.
- Keep records of headaches. Write down when you get them and what you were doing prior to having one. This can help when speaking to a doctor about migraines so you can learn what your triggers are and what migraine treatment will be best.
- Do relaxation exercises. Meditation, yoga and other muscle relaxation techniques can be done in the home. Or, you can always just do something you find relaxing such as listening to music or reading your favorite book.
- Get enough sleep. Keeping a sleep schedule in which you wake up and go to bed at the same time is important in regularizing your body.