According to the WHO, migraine affects 10% of the global population. Do most of us truly understand what migraines are? Lots of people may think that migraines are just really bad headaches, however, this is a dangerous and false belief. In fact, headaches are only symptoms of migraines. In addition, migraines are not only painful but can disrupt your day-to-day activities as well. It is crucial that we know the causes, symptoms and treatment of migraines, how to differentiate them from your regular headache and when to see a doctor.
What is a Migraine?
In terms of symptoms, most people would suffer from a severe headache that is present on one side of the head only. The throbbing sensation may worsen when people move, preventing people from engaging in their daily activities. Apart from having headaches, patients may become more sensitive to light and sound, feel nauseous or even vomit.
Migraines usually have four stages — Prodrome, Aura, Attack and Post-drome, although not everyone experiences all four stages.
Prodrome refers to the one or two days before a migraine, where patients may experience symptoms such as constipation, mood changes or food cravings.
Auras are temporary symptoms of the nervous system and may present before or during migraines. For example, patients may have vision loss or may observe bright spots and flashes of light. Even though auras tend to be visual, they can manifest in other forms. For instance, patients may have difficulty speaking or have pins and needles in their limbs.
Attack & Post-drome
For the attack phase of the migraine, it is when the headache, sensitivity to stimuli, nausea and vomiting occur. Lastly, for post-drome, patients may feel drained and confused up to a day after the migraine.
What are the causes of Migraine?
Different factors may increase peoples’ chances of getting migraines, but the exact cause is unknown. One of the many factors is suggested to be genetic as half of the migraine patients have a close relative with migraine as well. Migraines are also reported to be three times more common in females than in males. For females, migraines can be associated with periods. This is because, before menstruation, the level of estrogen decreases and that can also potentially cause migraines.
Certain medications, such as oral contraceptives and nitroglycerin, may also trigger migraines. High levels of stress, exposure to sensory stimuli (e.g. bright light, loud sounds or strong smells) and intense physical activity causes migraines in some people too. Finally, diet has a role to play too. Drinks, such as alcohol, in particular wine, and a large amount of coffee increases the chance of migraines. Certain food and food additives may contribute to migraine too; such as chocolate, MSG and aspartame.
How do I relieve the symptoms of a migraine?
Although there is no cure for migraines, many types of treatment are available to relieve its symptoms and to reduce the frequency of occurrence. According to the NHS, most patients find relief in sleeping or lying in a dark room during a migraine attack. Eating a light snack may benefit some patients too. If these methods are ineffective, medications may be useful. For example, over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, especially when taken as soon as the first signs of an attack are observed, can help the patient feel better. This includes paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen. However, it is important to adhere to the instructions on the packaging tightly because overuse of painkillers can actually cause more headaches, worsening the migraine. If OTC medications are ineffective, patients can consider visiting a doctor for stronger
medications. The doctor may prescribe Triptans, which calms the overactive nerves and constricts blood vessels in the brain, reducing symptoms of a migraine. Patients often need to book a follow-up appointment with their doctor to see whether the drug is effective and to check for any side effects. Apart from Triptans, doctors may prescribe anti-emetics, which are drugs that are normally used to treat vomiting but are useful in migraines as well.
Although migraines can be terrifying and can create a lot of inconveniences, we can work with our doctors to minimize the chances of our migraine recurring or reduce the severity of the symptoms. Keeping a migraine journal may help identify triggers and patterns for patients, in order to provide more information for the doctor, hence increasing the chance of successfully alleviating symptoms.
For more information, consult with the practitioners at OT&P today!
- National Health Service. (2019). 'Migraine.' NHS. 10 May 2019. Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine/>[Accessed 4 July 2022].
- Mayo Clinic. (N/A). 'Migraine' South China Morning Post. Available at: <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201>[Accessed 4 July 2022].