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A migraine is a very painful type of headache. The pain is moderate to severe, often described as pounding, throbbing pain and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. A migraine can last from hours to days. The National Headache Foundation estimates that 28 million Americans suffer from migraines. Migraine is three times more common in women than in men.

Symptoms of Migraines

Symptoms can vary widely from person to person but usually include one or a combination of the symptoms below.

  • Pain - usually begins as a dull ache and develops into throbbing pain. The pain is most often on one side of the head but can shift from one side to the other or it can affect the front of the head or feel like it's affecting the whole head.
  • Nausea and vomiting, stomach upset, abdominal pain
  • Sensitivity to light, noise, and odors
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Visual Disturbances - these often occur before the onset of pain and can be a warning that a migraine is coming. The most common visual disturbances include an auras (bright shimmering light around objects or at the edges of the field of vision.
  • Feeling very cold or very hot
  • Numbness in the hands and/or feet
  • Diarrhea

Causes of Migraines

The exact causes of migraines are unknown but they are related to changes in the brain as well as to genetic causes. People who get migraines usually have a parent or close relative that also experiences migraines. They also seem to be affected by the same, or similar "migraine triggers". There are a wide variety of migraine triggers. Some things that can trigger a migraine include the following:

Common Migraine Triggers

  • Stress: Stress is one of the most common migraine triggers. When we are experiencing a stressfull event, certain chemicals in the brain are released to help us deal with the situation. The release of these chemicals can cause changes in the brain that can cause a migraine.
  • Food & Beverages: For some people, certain foods or beverages can trigger a migraine. Common food and beverage triggers include cheese, chocolate, nuts, food additives such as nitrates (found in pepperoni, hot dogs, luncheon meats) and monosodium glutamate (MSG, commonly found in Chinese food). Caffeine found in coffee, tea, and soda can cause migraines in some people. Either too much caffeine or too little caffeine (caffeine withdrawal). However, Caffeine itself is often helpful in treating acute migraine attacks. It's in Excedrin, which is commonly used to treat migraines.
  • Weather Changes: Changes in barometric pressure, approaching storms, strong winds, and changes in altitute can all trigger migraines.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Any change in sleep patterns, too little sleep, or even too much sleep can cause migraines.
  • Skipping Meals: By skipping a meal your blood sugar levels can drop to a level that causes your body to release hormones to make up for the low blood sugar. These hormones can increase your blood pressure and narrow your arteries. The result can be headaches and migraines.
  • Menstruation: Hormonal changes that occur with menstruation, specifically with the hormone estrogen. Estrogen levels drop immediately before the start of the menstrual flow. 60%-70% report that their migraines are related to their menstrual cycles. In women whose migraines are related to their menstrual cycle, the migraines usually disappear during pregnancy.
  • Bright and flickering lights

If you can identify something that triggers your migraines, you can take steps to avoid that particular trigger. If you suffer from migraines, it's a good idea to keep a journal to help you identify any triggers.

Treatments for Migraines

The best treatment for migraines is prevention. Some people can identify things that trigger their migraines and avoid them, thus preventing a migraine from occuring. For others however, no triggers can be identified. If migraines occur more than two or three times a month and are significantly interfering with normal activities, a preventive medication is usually prescribed. Preventive medications are generally taken on a regular, daily basis. There are also medications that can stop a migraine, if taken at the first sign that one is coming. These are particularly helpful for people who experience warning signs before a migraine, such as auras, tingling or numbness in hands, feet, arms or legs. These medications work to stop the process that causes the pain associated with migraines. They work by constricting the blood vessels and bringing them back to normal. Once a migraine has set in, you need to treat the symptoms. For pain, there are many effective over-the-counter medications such as excedrin, motrin, aspirin, and tylenol. Some work better than others for each individual. If over-the-counter medications don't relieve your migraine pain, your doctor can prescribe something stronger. If you experience nausea and vomiting, your doctor can prescribe medication for that as well. Migraines can be very debilitating and can interfere with your daily activities. If you are suffering from frequent or severe migraines, it's best to see your doctor so he/she can evaluate and treat your migraines.

Non-Medication Treatments

There are other things that you can do to treat or prevent migraines. If you can identify a trigger and avoid it, that's great! Some people find that an ice pack is helpful, others find a hotpack or hot shower works for them. Sitting in a dark quiet room is often helpful. Learning relaxation techniques and using them on a regular basis can help you better deal with stressful events, thus reducing or preventing your migraines. Getting the proper amount of sleep and eating on a regular basis can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. Making sure you are getting enough to drink is also important. Dehydration can trigger headaches and migraines. Biofeedback is also a great tool. Biofeedback helps people learn to recognize signs in the body, such as muscle tension, that occur during stressful situations that trigger migraines. If the migraine begins slowly, many people can use biofeedback to stop the attack before it becomes full blown. Your doctor can refer you to a biofeedback specialist if this is something you're interested in. Accupunture has been shown to be helpful in treating migraines, as well as a variety of other health problems. Herbal remedies have helps some migraine sufferers. Many herbs are said to help headaches and migraines but Feverfew has been shown to be safe and effective in clinical trials. There are many, many herbal remedies out there so you need to be careful. Remember, herbal supplements and remedies do not have to undergo the same rigorous testing and strict guidelines as medications do. If you do use herbal remedies, please discuss them with your doctor since some herbs do have negative interactions with other medications you may be taking or that your doctor may prescribe in the future for you.

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