Migraine – Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Migraines are intense and even debilitating headaches that can negatively impact a person’s quality of life in many ways.

woman with migraine headache


What Are the Three Types of Migraine?

As many as 10% of the world’s population suffers from the excruciating pain of migraine headaches. These headaches are three times more likely to impact women than men, and they are most common among those who are between the ages of 30 and 50 years old.

There are numerous types of migraines, but some are more common than others. The three most common types are classic, common and menstrual. The classic type is a severe headache that is accompanied by an aura. An aura describes sensory disturbances, such as those related to vision and hearing. Auras can also result in tingling, weakness and issues with speech. Approximately one-quarter of these headaches are accompanied by auras. Aural symptoms usually begin up to an hour before the headache begins.

The common type is hallmarked by a severe headache without an aura. Both classic and common varieties are associated with same types of triggers, and some of the extensive triggers may be similar. In addition, they both may be chronic or episodic.

Menstrual migraines are also common among women. They are caused by hormonal changes experienced before and during menstruation. Commonly, they flare anywhere from two days before menstruation to three days after menstruation. Many women who suffer from them endure headache pain and other related symptoms each month.

In addition to these types, some people suffer from other less common types. These may include hemiplegic, abdominal, ocular, vestibular and status migrainosus.

What Are the different Symptoms?

The specific symptoms experienced and their severity may vary from person to person, and they depend on the type. A severe headache on one side of the head with thumping or throbbing is common, but some headaches may be dull. The pain may get worse with movement. Neck pain as well as no headache or neck pain may also be experienced. Other common symptoms are blurred vision, stiffness, nausea, vomiting and irritability. Some people may be overly sensitive to touch, sounds, smells and light.

With an aural headache, the aura may last between five minutes and an hour usually. You may see flashing lights, or bright colors. Some people describe auras as tunnel vision, a zigzag light and sparkles. If the aura affects other areas of the people, confusion, uncontrollable movements, weakness, tingling, speech issues and even auditory hallucinations are possible. Be aware that some people experience an aura without a headache or other symptoms.

What Causes Migraine?


The exact cause of migraines is not known, but there are several suspected causes. One possibility is that specific brain chemical increase nerve cell activity and stimulates the trigeminal nerve. These brain chemicals include dopamine, calcitonin and serotonin. As these brain chemicals flood the nerves at high levels, neurotransmitters may be stimulated to alter blood vessel size. Some believe that this produces an inflammatory response.

Many sufferers have identified triggers that seem to lead up to their symptoms. Some common triggers are:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Alcohol, most commonly red wine
  • Chocolate
  • Bananas
  • Avocados
  • Plums
  • Raisins
  • Cold foods
  • Food preservatives
  • Artificial sweeteners

Some medications may also be triggers, including both prescription and over-the-counter drugs. A few of these are:

  • Hormones, including birth control pills
  • Nitroglycerin
  • Cimetidine
  • Hydralazine
  • Reserpine
  • Nifedipine

There is evidence that migraines run in families. However, this does not necessarily suggest that they are genetic. Another possible cause is stress or strong emotions.
Some people have a single trigger or cause, and others may discover that there are multiple contributing factors. Identifying the cause can be a challenging process. However, you may narrow down the possibilities and ultimately pinpoint your specific trigger or triggers by keeping a wellness diary.

How to treat the Symptoms


There is no proven way to stop the headache and other symptoms, but some people are able to manage the symptoms using various techniques. Commonly, those with symptoms are encouraged to sit in a dark, quiet room and remain still. Applying pressure or a cold compress to the painful area on the head or neck may provide some temporary relief.

There are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications that may be effective for several hours. Over-the-counter medications include naproxen, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin. Some of the more common prescription medications that are available through a physician are:

  • Ergots
  • Gepants
  • Sumatriptan
  • Almotriptan
  • Naratriptan
  • Eletriptan
  • Frovatriptan
  • CGRP inhibitors

If one of your other prescribed medications is contributing to the symptoms, your doctor may adjust your prescriptions.

There are also a few devices available that work to interrupt the neural activity that initiates a migraine. The Cefaly is a special device that wraps around the head. By sending electrical impulses into the forehead, the Cefaly stimulates the suspect nerves. Another device is known as the Spring TM, but it may also be called the eNeura sTMS. It is placed behind the head. By sending a magnetic pulse into the brain, it stimulates the vagus nerve to provide relief. Using one of these devices periodically could also be a preventive measure.

How long does a Migraine Attack last?


While the symptoms associated with an aura may only last up to an hour, the headache and other symptoms may last for up to 72 hours in some people. Migraines are typically classified as being wither episodic and chronic. The difference between these is based on how many days per month a person experiences symptoms. Episodic describes symptoms that occur for less than 15 days per month. Chronic, on the other hand, describes symptoms that are experienced for greater than 15 days per month, and this continues for at least three months consecutively.

The episodic variety may progress to chronic in some people. While this can happen to anyone, the progression is most common in those who abuse drugs like triptans, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, caffeine, barbiturates and opioids. There are also some conditions that may be associated with a progression from episodic to chronic. These include anxiety, depression, obesity and sleep apnea.

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