What is a migraine headache?
A migraine headache is a type of headache that tends to recur in an individual and causes moderate to severe pain. The pain is often described as throbbing or pulsing and usually begins on one side of the head. Migraine headaches are worsened by physical activity, light, sound, or physical movement. The pain typically last from 4 hours up to 3 days. The person experiencing a migraine headache may be sensitive to light, sound and even smell. He or she may also experience nausea and/or vomiting.
Who is affected by migraines?
The National Headache Foundation estimates that nearly 12 percent of the population experience migraine headaches. This means that nearly 40 million people in the United States have migraines. Women are about three times more likely than men to experience migraines.
Are migraines hereditary?
Yes, migraines have a tendency to run in families. As many as four out of five people with migraine have a family history of migraines. If one parent has a history of migraines, the child has a 50 percent chance of developing migraines, and if both parents have a history of migraines, the risk jumps to 75 percent.
What causes a migraine?
Migraine headache pain results from signals interacting among the brain, blood vessels, and surrounding nerves. During a headache, specific nerves of the blood vessels are activated and send pain signals to the brain. It’s not clear, however, why these signals are activated in the first place.
There is a migraine “pain center,” or generator, in the mid-brain area. A migraine begins when overactive nerve cells send out impulses to the blood vessels. This causes the release of prostaglandins, serotonin, and other substances that cause swelling of the blood vessels in the vicinity of the nerve endings, resulting in pain.
What are the symptoms of migraines?
The symptoms of migraine include:
- Headache pain. Pain is described as a pounding or throbbing. It can begin as a dull ache that develops into throbbing pain. The pain worsens with physical activity. The pain can begin as mild, moderate or severe. If left untreated, the headache will become moderate to severe. The pain can shift from one side of the head to the other, or it can affect the front of the head or feel like it’s affecting the whole head. Most migraines last about 4 hours, although severe ones can last much longer and even become daily. Having two to four migraine headaches per month is common. However, some people have headaches daily; others only get a migraine once or twice a year.
- Sensitivity to light, noise and odors
- Nausea and vomiting, stomach upset, abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very warm (sweating) or cold (chills)
- Pale color (pallor)
- Feeling tired
- Blurred vision
- Tender scalp
- Diarrhea (rare)
- Fever (rare)
About 30 percent of people who have migraines develop symptoms several hours up to 2 days before the headache starts. This early stage of migraine is called a prodrome. During this stage, the person can experience vague symptoms including anxiety, mood changes (depression, hyperactivity, irritability, euphoria), tiredness, increased thirst, food cravings, and neck stiffness and pain
What triggers a migraine?
Migraine attacks can be triggered by a variety of factors. Triggers include:
- Emotional stress , worry. Emotional stress is one of the most common triggers of migraine headache. During stressful events, certain chemicals in the brain are released to combat the situation (known as the "flight or fight" response). The release of these chemicals can bring on a migraine. Other emotions such as anxiety, worry, and excitement can increase muscle tension and dilate blood vessels, which can make the migraine more severe.
- Sensitivity to specific chemicals and preservatives in foods. Certain foods and beverages, such as aged cheese, alcoholic beverages, chocolate, and food additives such as nitrates (in pepperoni, hot dogs, luncheon meats), monosodium glutamate (MSG, commonly found in Chinese food) and fermented or pickled foods may be responsible for triggering up to 30 percent of migraines.
- Caffeine . Having too much caffeine or withdrawal from caffeine can cause headaches when the caffeine level abruptly drops. The blood vessels seem to become sensitized to caffeine, and when caffeine is not ingested, a headache may occur. Caffeine itself is often helpful in treating acute migraine attacks.
- Changing weather conditions such as storm fronts, barometric pressure changes, strong winds or changes in altitude.
- Bright light, fluorescent light, flashing lights, sunlight
- Tension, anxiety
- Being overly tired
- Missing meals, dieting or not drinking enough liquids
- Changes in normal sleep pattern
- Loud noises
- Exposure to smoke, perfumes or other odors
- Certain medications that cause blood vessels to swell
- Hormonal changes in women (brought on by menstrual periods, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy)
- Overuse or daily use of headache-relieving medications
What is an aura?
An aura is a symptom or “warning signal” that a migraine is about to begin. An aura can also appear during or after the headache pain. Auras can last from 15 to 60 minutes. About 15 to 20 percent of people who experience migraines have auras. Auras can affect vision, producing symptoms such as:
- Bright flashing dots or lights
- Blind spots
- Distorted vision
- Temporary vision loss
- Wavy or jagged lines
Auras can affect other senses. Other auras may include ringing in the ears (tinnitus), tingling in the arm or face, speaking difficulties, changes in smell (such as strange odors) or taste, or simply having a “funny feeling.”
Some rare migraines, with specific neurological auras, include:
Hemiplegic migraine. A person experiencing this migraine has with temporary paralysis (hemiplegia) or neurological or sensory changes on one side of the body. The onset of the headache may be associated with temporary numbness, dizziness or vision changes.
Retinal migraine. A person experiencing this migraine has temporary, partial or complete loss of vision in one eye, along with a dull ache behind the eye that may spread to the rest of the head.
Migraine with brainstem aura. This migraine is accompanied by vertigo, slurred speech, double vision or loss of balance, which occur before the headache. The headache pain may affect the back of the head. These symptoms usually occur suddenly and can be associated with the inability to speak properly, ringing in the ears, and vomiting.
Status migrainosus. This is a rare and severe type of migraine that can last longer than 72 hours. The headache pain and nausea can be extremely severe. Certain medications, or medication withdrawal, can cause this type migraine syndrome.