If you’ve ever experienced a migraine, you’ll be all too aware of how disruptive the symptoms can be to your everyday life. More than just a simple headache, migraine is a chronic condition that causes severe, often throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. It is sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and a range of sensory symptoms, such as seeing flashes of light, lines or spots in your vision, or extreme sensitivity to loud sounds or bright light.
Migraines can last for hours, days or even weeks, and have a debilitating effect on those affected and their families. When in the grips of migraine, many patients are unable to carry on with work or other everyday activities, and may be forced to avoid light, sound and other stimuli that can make the symptoms worse.
So what triggers these intense episodes, and is there anything you can do to prevent migraine if you’re susceptible? Read on to learn more about the condition and how it can be helped.
What causes migraines?
Although the precise cause of migraine is not completely understood, it is generally thought that the symptoms result from an oversensitivity in some people’s brains to ordinary stimuli that wouldn’t normally cause an issue. The condition seems to be genetic, with migraines tending to run in families, and is also more likely to affect women than men. Researchers have also identified certain genes that seem to be associated with particular types of migraines, and which may be the cause of the abnormal brain cell reactions.
In people who are genetically predisposed to migraine, an individual episode may be brought on by any of a number of triggers which consist of both internal and external stimuli, although sometimes it can be difficult to establish a direct causal effect. Some of the commonly cited triggers include:
being overtired; sleeping too much or too little; going too long without eating, such that your blood sugar drops (hypoglycaemia); keeping irregular hours, as with shift work; having poor posture; and reactions to certain types of medication, such as sleeping pills, the combined contraceptive pill, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
bright light; loud noises; strong odours, especially cigarette smoke; overly warm or stuffy conditions; sudden changes in temperature, humidity or other climatic conditions; flickering lights, such as a poorly adjusted computer or television screen, or overhead bulb.
feeling stressed or anxious; being tense or overly excited; experiencing depression or a sudden shock.
The specific triggers may vary by person and change over time, and sometimes require a combination of several of the above factors to set off an attack. Hormones are also thought to play a role in how sensitive people are to triggers, as women in particular tend to report more migraines around the time of their monthly period, when estrogen levels in the body drop. This could also explain why women are more susceptible to migraine than men, as they usually experience more frequent and drastic hormonal fluctuations throughout their lives.
What to do if you suffer from migraine
If you believe you are suffering from migraine, it is important to speak to your GP for a diagnosis, which can usually be done on the basis of your symptoms and case history. It also gives them an opportunity to rule out other causes of the pain. You should also immediately seek medical assistance if your headache is accompanied by other severe symptoms – such as weakness or paralysis on one side of the body or face, difficulty speaking, confusion, seizures, double vision or a high fever – as these may indicate a stroke or other serious illness.
There are medications and treatments available for when the symptoms take hold, which can be prescribed based on the frequency and severity of your headaches. These include varying strengths of painkiller (some of which can be obtained over the counter at your local pharmacy) and anti-nausea medication; specialist drugs called triptans; and even in some cases, a form of magnet therapy called transcranial magnetic stimulation may help reduce symptoms. Your doctor or consultant will advise on the treatments that are most appropriate for you.
Can migraines be prevented?
One of the first steps in preventing a migraine is to avoid any known or potential triggers as much as possible. If you’re not sure what your triggers are, it can help to track the onset and development of your symptoms in a migraine diary that may help you identify a pattern in your attacks or an association with a particular food, environmental factor or physical or emotional state.
It can also help to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle, with a balanced diet that avoids excess alcohol, caffeine and sugar, and frequent moderate exercise to help relieve stress and keep your body functioning at its peak. Since migraine is often triggered by changes to your body’s status quo, it can also be useful to establish and stick to a routine which includes regular mealtimes and sufficient sleep. If you anticipate changes to this routine – for instance, when travelling, or over the festive period when you’ll be attending lots of parties and social events – try to ease your body into it gently, so as to minimise the disruption and decrease the risk of an attack.