A migraine is a neurological condition that causes severe, incapacitating headaches that last from a few hours to a few days. About 12 percent of Americans lives with migraines. Some types of migraines are not as common, such as abdominal migraines and cluster headaches (also called red eye migraine).
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Common Migraine Symptoms
The most common symptom of a migraine is severe throbbing, pulsing, or stabbing head pain, usually on one side of the head. Other symptoms may include:
- Sensitivity to light, sounds, smells and touch
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
Some people who have migraines experience auras that tell them a migraine will start, including:
- Flashes of light or movement in their line of vision
- Vision loss, sometimes one half of both eyes
- Stroke-like symptoms (such as numbness on one side of the body)
What Causes a Migraine?
Experts believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role in migraines. Some people’s genes make them more likely to develop the disorder. Certain substances and physical conditions can be triggers for a migraine attack.
A migraine starts when a complex nerve pathway turns on. This pathway involves a major sensory nerve in the face, called the trigeminal nerve. Then, a change in the level of certain brain chemicals causes a hypersensitive pain response and migraine symptoms.
Although some migraines have no known trigger, risk factors for triggering the dysfunctional nerve pathway include:
- Change in hormone levels, including those seen just before menstruation
- Certain types of foods, including aged cheese, chocolate, and red wine
- Flashing lights
- Lack of sleep or too much sleep
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Certain types of medications, including birth control pills
Treatment of Migraines
Advances in treatment have helped many people cope with migraines. Some find relief from:
- Aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen (for mild migraines)
- Medications that target migraines and interrupt the biochemical pathways, including sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt), and dihydroergotamine and ergotamine (Cafergot)
- Medications to treat nausea
- Corticosteroids to decrease inflammation, such as prednisone
Attempting to prevent migraines may involve lifestyle changes and removing or avoiding known triggers. Relaxation techniques, cognitive behavior therapy, and biofeedback may also help reduce stress and tension triggers. Preventive medications may be helpful. The following drugs are commonly used to prevent migraines:
- Blood pressure medications, including propranolol (Inderal LA), metoprolol tartrate (Lopressor), and timolol (Betimol)
- Amitriptyline, an antidepressant
- Antiseizure drugs, including valproate (Depacon) and topiramate (Topamax)
- Botox injections along the head and neck
Effective treatment options for migraines exist, so you should speak with your primary care doctor.