There are headaches and then there are migraines. Headaches are a painful inconvenience that can be treated with over-the-counter pain medication. Migraines, on the other hand, require you to stop what you’re doing immediately and brace yourself for impact.
What is a migraine?
Migraines start with a throbbing pain on one side of the head. The throbbing turns into an unbearable pulsing sensation that is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. There’s also a sensitivity to light and sound. These serious headaches can last for hours or days with a pain so disabling that laying still in the dark is the only way to get temporary migraine relief.
What are the symptoms?
Migraines occur in four stages: prodrome, migraine aura, attack and postdrome. You may not experience all four but most people experience at least two out of the four stages.
During the prodrome stage, your body will try to warn you that a migraine is coming. In the one or two days leading up to a migraine, you may experience mood changes, neck stiffness, frequent yawning, constipation and increased thirst followed by increased urination.
Migraine aura can occur during or before a severe headache begins. The nervous system is affected during the migraine aura stage as this phase manifests itself through sensory, motor or verbal disturbances. For example, you may experience muscle weakness, vision loss, the feeling of pins and needles in the arms or legs, and uncontrollable jerking or spastic movements. Furthermore, migraine aura can produce noises that make you think you are hearing music and visual shapes like bright spots and flashes of light. Finally, you can feel a numbness of the face or one side of your body and have trouble speaking. Generally, these symptoms start gradually before lasting anywhere between 20 and 60 minutes.
The attack is when the headache occurs. You may feel blinding, throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head. Most people experience sensitivity to light, sounds, smells, and touch during the attack along with nausea, vomiting, and blurred vision. In severe cases, you may experience light-headedness and even faint. Migraine attacks can last anywhere from four to 72 hours if you do not seek treatment.
The final stage of a migraine, postdrome, manifests itself differently from person to person. While some people feel elated post-migraine, others feel drained and weak. Dizziness is also common during the postdrome phase along with confusion, light and sound sensitivity, and moodiness.
Migraine causes: What are the triggers?
Migraines causes aren’t completely understood but changes in the brainstem and how it interacts with a major pain pathway, the trigeminal nerve, have lead researchers to look at imbalances in brain chemicals like serotonin. Genetics and environmental factors also play a role in the causes of migraines.
Along with migraine causes, there are also factors that can influence these debilitating headaches:
- Hormonal changes in women
- Processed, fatty, aged or salty foods
- Additives like aspartame and preservatives like MSG
- Alcohol, usually wine
- Highly caffeinated beverages and energy drinks
- Extreme stress
- Lack of sleep or jet lag
- Environmental changes like pressure drops
- Intense physical exertion
- Sensory stimuli such as sun glare, bright lights, loud noises and strong smells (perfume, second-hand smoke)
How to get migraine relief:
Unfortunately, there is no direct cure for migraines. However, you can get migraine relief with a few simple lifestyle changes and coping strategies.
- Be consistent with your daily schedule for optimal migraine relief. By establishing a routine with regular meal times and sleep patterns, you can avoid triggers. You should also maintain a healthy diet and limit the amount of caffeine and processed food you consume.
- It may be impossible to live a stress-free life but with regular exercise, you can reduce tension and keep migraines at bay. Remember to warm up slowly otherwise sudden intense exercise is one of the migraine causes.
- Speak with your primary care physician about medications, supplements, or other ways to help you manage your migraines.
A headache isn’t always a headache, and you don't need to suffer. If you experience any migraine symptoms, especially migraine aura, contact your primary care physician immediately.