Migraines are chronic headaches that can cause significant pain for hours or even days. Symptoms can be so severe that all you can think about is finding a dark, quiet place to lie down.
Some migraines are preceded or accompanied by sensory warning symptoms or signs (auras), such as flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your arm or leg. A migraine is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
Although there’s no cure, medications can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. If treatment hasn’t worked for you in the past, it’s worth talking to your doctor about trying a different migraine medication. The right medicines combined with self-help remedies and lifestyle changes may make a tremendous difference.
Migraines usually begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. A typical migraine attack produces some or all of these signs and symptoms:
* Moderate to severe pain, which may be confined to one side of the head or may affect both sides
* Head pain with a pulsating or throbbing quality
* Pain that worsens with physical activity
* Pain that interferes with your regular activities
* Nausea with or without vomiting
* Sensitivity to light and sound
When untreated, a migraine typically lasts from four to 72 hours, but the frequency with which headaches occur varies from person to person. You may have migraines several times a month or much less frequently.
Not all migraines are the same. Most people experience migraines without auras, which were previously called common migraines. Some people have migraines with auras, which were previously called classic migraines. Auras can include changes to your vision, such as seeing flashes of light, and feeling pins and needles in an arm or leg.
Whether or not you have auras, you may have one or more sensations of premonition (prodrome) several hours or a day or so before your headache actually strikes, including:
* Feelings of elation or intense energy
* Cravings for sweets
* Irritability or depression
Although much about the cause of migraines isn’t understood, genetics and environmental factors seem to both play a role.
Migraines may be caused by changes in the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway. Imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin — which helps regulate pain in your nervous system — also may be involved.
Serotonin levels drop during migraines. This may trigger your trigeminal system to release substances called neuropeptides, which travel to your brain’s outer covering (meninges). The result is headache pain.
Whatever the exact mechanism of the headaches, a number of things may trigger them. Common migraine triggers include:
* Hormonal changes in women. Fluctuations in estrogen seem to trigger headaches in many women with known migraines. Women with a history of migraines often report headaches immediately before or during their periods, when they have a major drop in estrogen. Others have an increased tendency to develop migraines during pregnancy or menopause. Hormonal medications — such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy — also may worsen migraines, though some women find it’s beneficial to take them.
* Foods. Some migraines appear to be triggered by certain foods. Common offenders include alcohol, especially beer and red wine; aged cheeses; chocolate; aspartame; overuse of caffeine; monosodium glutamate — a key ingredient in some Asian foods; salty foods; and processed foods. Skipping meals or fasting also can trigger migraines.
* Stress. Stress at work or home can instigate migraines.
* Sensory stimuli. Bright lights and sun glare can produce migraines, as can loud sounds. Unusual smells — including pleasant scents, such as perfume, and unpleasant odors, such as paint thinner and secondhand smoke, can also trigger migraines.
* Changes in wake-sleep pattern. Either missing sleep or getting too much sleep may serve as a trigger for migraine attacks in some individuals, as can jet lag.
* Physical factors. Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, may provoke migraines.
* Changes in the environment. A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine.
* Medications. Certain medications can aggravate migraines.
Several factors make you more prone to having migraines.
* Having a family history. Many people with migraines have a family history of migraine. If one or both of your parents have migraines, there’s a good chance you will too.
* Being younger than 40. Half the people who suffer from migraines started getting them before they were 20 and migraines are most common in people who are between 30 and 39 years old.
* Being female. Women are three times as likely to have migraines as men are. Headaches tend to affect boys more than girls during childhood, but by the time of puberty, more girls are affected.
* Experiencing hormonal changes. If you’re a woman with migraines, you may find that your headaches begin just before or shortly after onset of menstruation. They may also change during pregnancy or menopause. Some women report that their migraines got worse during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Though for many, the migraines improved during later stages in the pregnancy.
Sometimes your efforts to control your pain cause problems.
* Abdominal problems. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) and aspirin, may cause abdominal pain, bleeding and ulcers — especially if taken in large doses or for a long period of time.
* Rebound headaches. In addition, if you take over-the-counter or prescription headache medications more than nine days per month or in high doses, you may be setting yourself up for a serious complication known as rebound headaches. Rebound headaches occur when medications not only stop relieving pain, but actually begin to cause headaches. You then use more pain medication, which traps you in a vicious cycle.
* Serotonin syndrome. This potentially life-threatening drug interaction can occur if you take migraine medicines called triptans, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex) or zolmitriptan (Zomig), along with antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Some common SSRIs include Zoloft, Prozac and Paxil. SNRIs include Cymbalta and Effexor. Fortunately, serotonin syndrome is rare.
Nontraditional therapies may be helpful if you have chronic headache pain:
* Acupuncture. In this treatment, a practitioner inserts many thin, disposable needles into several areas of your skin at defined points. A number of clinical trials have found that acupuncture may be helpful for headache pain.
* Biofeedback. Biofeedback appears to be especially effective in relieving migraine pain. This relaxation technique uses special equipment to teach you how to monitor and control certain physical responses related to stress, such as muscle tension.
* Massage. Massage may help reduce the frequency of migraines. And it can improve the quality of your sleep, which can, in turn, help prevent migraines.
* Herbs, vitamins and minerals. There is some evidence that the herbs feverfew and butterbur may prevent migraines or reduce their severity. A high dose of riboflavin (vitamin B-2) also may prevent migraines by correcting tiny deficiencies in the brain cells. Coenzyme Q10 supplements may be helpful in some individuals. Oral magnesium sulfate supplements may reduce the frequency of headaches in some people, although studies don’t all agree on this issue. Magnesium taken intravenously seems to help some people during an acute headache, particularly people with magnesium deficiencies. Ask your doctor if these treatments are right for you. Don’t use feverfew or butterbur if you’re pregnant.
Whether or not you take preventive medications, you may benefit from lifestyle changes that can help reduce the number and severity of migraines. One or more of these suggestions may be helpful for you:
* Avoid triggers. If certain foods seem to have triggered your headaches in the past, avoid those foods. If certain scents are a problem, try to avoid them. In general, establish a daily routine with regular sleep patterns and regular meals. In addition, try to control stress.
* Exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise reduces tension and can help prevent migraines. If your doctor agrees, choose any aerobic exercise you enjoy, including walking, swimming and cycling. Warm up slowly, however, because sudden, intense exercise can cause headaches. Obesity is also thought to be a factor in migraines, and regular exercise can help you keep your weight down.
* Reduce the effects of estrogen. If you’re a woman with migraines and estrogen seems to trigger or make your headaches worse, you may want to avoid or reduce the amount of medications you take that contain estrogen. These medications include birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. Talk with your doctor about the best alternatives or dosages for you.