What is a migraine?

A migraine is a chronic, neurological condition characterized by severe headaches and a complex syndrome of symptoms, lasting 4-72 hours. The pain is typically on one side of the head, throbbing, and made worse by physical activity.To be considered a migraine, you also must have at least one of the following symptoms: nausea and/or vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, or visual auras.

Migraines are common and affect around 38 million Americans. Women are 2 - 3 times more likely to suffer from migraines than men after puberty. This is likely due to the role hormones can play in triggering migraines.

What causes migraines?

While genetics play a role in who gets migraines, there are many internal and external triggers that can set them in motion. It is important to track your migraines so you can identify what may cause them.

Some of the most common internal triggers are:

  • lack of sleep
  • changes in blood sugar
  • hormonal shifts
  • stress

External triggers include:

  • exposure to bright lights
  • loud noises
  • changes in atmospheric pressure

Foods trigger migraines for many people, so when tracking your triggers, you should pay attention to what have you eaten prior to the onset of a migraine. Foods that commonly trigger migraines include:

  • aged cheeses
  • red wine
  • chocolate
  • soy sauce

How do I prevent migraines?

The most important thing you can do to prevent migraines is to keep a Headache Diary. Begin logging each headache in a diary and note the following qualities:

  • Start/End
  • Character (pounding, stabbing, etc.)
  • One-sided? Which side?
  • Severity
  • What helped it to go away?
  • Associated factors
    • Have you missed any meals?
    • Where you are in your menstrual cycle
    • Any medications you have taken
    • What you drank
    • What you ate

By keeping a diary, you and your provider can begin to identify what sets off your migraines and what you can do to avoid those triggers. It also helps to keep your daily routine stable:

  • get enough sleep
  • go to bed and wake up at the same times every day
  • eat a healthy diet and avoid skipping meals
  • exercise regularly
  • reduce stress

How are migraines treated?

It is important that you see your healthcare provider prior to properly diagnose your migraines. Once diagnosed, there are a few treatment options available to treat your migraines. Most of these fall into two groups: rescue and preventive treatments.

Rescue treatments are medications that can be taken once a migraine starts in order to shorten its and provide pain relief. These can include simple, over the counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen. For more severe headaches, your provider may prescribe an ergotamine or triptan medication.

Preventative treatments can come in different forms depending on the severity and regularity of your migraines. Some preventative medicines include medications used for high blood pressure, depression, or seizures. This does not mean that these diseases caused your migraines, but the drugs that treat them have proven useful in prevent migraines in chronic sufferers.  

What are possible danger signs?

While headaches are not always dangerous, it is important to understand when a headache is more than just a headache and you should seek medical attention. If you experience the “worst headache of your life” that physically debilitates beyond your normal migraine, weakness on one side of the body, slurring of words, or an aura lasting beyond one hour, you should seek immediate medical attention.