Headaches are almost universal among human beings. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 96 percent of people get them at some point in their lives (and with all the stress of the past couple of years, we might be closer to 100 percent by now). However, not all headaches are created equal: migraines are different. They affect fewer people but often include symptoms that can be debilitating. If you’ve been trying to manage migraines without support from a medical provider, please make an appointment today. We can help.
How are migraines different from headaches?
A headache is a feeling of pain in the head or face that can be throbbing, sharp, or dull. Tension or “stress” headaches are by far the most common, affecting two-thirds of adults. A migraine, on the other hand, is actually a neurological condition that affects about one in ten people. Migraine symptoms generally occur in a cascade of four phases.
- The first phase, or prodrome, starts 24 to 48 hours before the headache and usually causes people to feel a bit off or irritable.
- Next comes the aura, a shorter period of light sensitivity 5 to 60 minutes before the headache when visual disturbances, blinking lights, blind spots, speech changes, tingling skin, and even temporary vision loss can occur. Only 25 to 30 percent of people with migraines experience this phase.
- The headache phase is what we most commonly associate with migraines. It can last as long as three days. It involves severe pain that is usually limited to one side of the head, and can also include nausea and vomiting, sweating, chills, dizziness, fatigue, and sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells.
- Lastly, the postdrome phase marks the end of the migraine. It can last a couple of days and usually leaves people feeling drained or discombobulated.
Are some people more at risk for migraines?
Some people are far more likely to suffer from migraines. Women, for example, are three times more likely than men to get migraines, which often cluster around menstrual cycles due to hormonal changes. Family history plays a major role, too. A child who has one parent with a history of migraines has a 50 percent chance of getting them. The risk skyrockets to 75 percent if both parents have migraines. Lifestyle factors like lack of exercise, eating poorly, not sleeping enough, and struggling to deal with stress can all make people more prone to migraines.
What triggers a migraine?
The list of migraine triggers is long and varied. From most to least common, triggers include emotional stress, female hormones, not eating enough, changes in the weather, sleep disturbances, smells, neck pain, lights, alcohol, smoke, sleeping late, heat, certain foods, exercise, and sexual activity. The specific triggers vary from person to person. Wine, for example, is a well-known trigger, but many people with migraines are able to tolerate it just fine.
How are migraines treated?
As with other medical conditions, it’s best to optimize health through lifestyle changes first. Something as simple as drinking more water can address the chronic dehydration that triggers migraines for some people. Other changes can include getting more sleep, improving nutrition, and reducing alcohol consumption.
Sometimes, though, it takes more effort to identify and address the symptoms of migraines. Keeping a migraine diary can help you identify your triggers. If you discover that alcohol or certain foods cause migraines, you can stay away from them almost as if you were allergic to them. Next, it’s important to take ibuprofen or acetaminophen as early into the onset of symptoms as possible. This can help abort the cascade before it really gets going, leading to less severe sickness and a faster recovery. Finally, laying down and resting in a dark, quiet place at the start of the migraine can go a long way toward slowing the symptoms before they become debilitating.
Approximately 35 percent of people with migraines try prescription medications. Triptans are abortive and meant to be taken at the onset of symptoms, while others are taken daily to prevent migraines. These medications come in all forms, including pills, injectables, and even nasal sprays. If you suffer from migraines and over-the-counter medications aren’t helping, you have options. I’ve also seen patients report success in managing migraines after taking a combination of vitamins and supplements recommended by a neurologist, such as CoQ10, Vitamin B2, magnesium, and Vitamin D.
If migraines are interfering with your life, please see your medical providers. Headaches may be something almost everyone experiences, but migraines aren’t just headaches, and effective treatments are available.
Talitha Marty is a primary care provider at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.