Migraines are a neurological disorder involving nerve pathways and brain chemicals, causing intense pain and throbbing on one or both sides of the brain.
Often misunderstood or improperly characterized as a “headache,” pain caused by a migraine can radiate throughout the head and body for days at a time. When migraine pain intensifies, sufferers often seek a dark, quiet room to attempt to relieve some of the most severe symptoms – including visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch, and smell, and tingling or numbness in the extremities or face.
Migraine pain can leave you debilitated, making it difficult to complete simple, everyday tasks. Symptoms vary, but some of the most common symptoms include:
- Throbbing, pulsating pain
- Pain on one side
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Dizziness or dizzy spells
- Sensitivity to smell
- Vision changes, such as blurred or cloudy vision
- The appearance of an “aura”
Though the pain can be intense with all migraines, migraine types vary. Some of the most common include:
Migraine with aura – includes visual disturbances and preliminary sensations about 10 to 60 minutes before the migraine headache strikes. It’s also common to temporarily lose your vision.
Migraine without aura – a pulsing headache without warning, usually felt on one side of the head.
Migraine without headache – a migraine that occurs without head pain, but with visual problems or other aura symptoms, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.
Migraine with brainstem aura (formerly called basilar-type migraine) – includes migraine with aura symptoms, without motor weaknesses. This type originates from the brain stem.
Retinal migraine – a rare type of migraine where vision loss occurs in one eye.
Chronic migraine – when migraine headaches occur on 15 or more days per month for a period of more than 3 months, which share features of a migraine headache on 8 or more days per month.
Although the underlying cause of migraines is unknown, there are a variety of environmental and genetic circumstances that can contribute to the onset of migraines, including:
Medical factors. Certain diseases, medications, and medical procedures can increase the risk of a migraine attack.
Brain chemistry. Women may notice an increase in migraine attacks around their menstrual cycles as their hormone balances shift. Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy may worsen migraines.
Genetic factors. Having a family member with migraines increases your risk of developing migraines.
Environmental factors. Changes in barometric pressure or sleep patterns, intense physical excursion, bright lights or loud noises, food additives like MSG, and external stress.
If you are diagnosed with a migraine, you have a number of options for prevention and treatment. These include:
Pain-relieving medications. These drugs can reduce symptoms—or stop them entirely.
Preventive medications. Take these drugs on a daily basis to reduce the severity or frequency of your migraines.
Transcutaneous supraorbital nerve stimulation (t-SNS). A headband with attached electrodes, this device (called Cefaly) is designed to prevent migraines.
Understanding what sets off your migraines. This treatment option exposes migraine sufferers to a variety of headache triggers. Over time, it can desensitize you to triggers.
Create a daily routine. Establishing a routine with regular sleep patterns, exercise, and meal times helps to prevent the onset of a migraine.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise, including a slow warm-up, can help prevent migraines. It can also prevent the onset of obesity, thought to be another contributing factor to increased migraine attacks.
Reduce estrogen intake. Women should be conscious of whether an increased amount of estrogen might be a headache trigger. If so, you may want to reduce or avoid medications that contain estrogen.
Often, finding the right treatment takes trial and error. Talk to your primary care physician or seek a neurologist who can help guide you through the process.
Alternative treatments for migraines include acupuncture, yoga and massage therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, and CBD. Each has been proven to yield positive results—and reduce or eliminate migraines.