Over 36 million Americans live with the painful and debilitating symptoms of migraine headaches. Although this neurological syndrome primarily affects women, many men and preadolescent children also suffer from migraines.
Every migraine is unique, and migraine symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient. Some migraines are mild in nature and are similar to the common headache, while other migraines require hospitalization.
The most telltale symptom of a migraine is a pounding headache. Usually the headache is centered on one side of the head, but the pain often moves to the other side of the head as the migraine progresses. Approximately one-third of migraine sufferers experience pain on both sides of the head.
Depending on the severity of the migraine, additional symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sensitivity to light and sound. Common activities, such as walking up the stairs, driving or watching TV can aggravate the pain. Often patients prefer to lie in a dark, silent room until the symptoms subside.
For many migraine sufferers, headaches are triggered by a complex series of trigger conditions. Although triggers are different for every individual, there are two primary categories of migraine triggers: food triggers and environmental triggers.
Common food triggers include aspartame, MSG, alcohol and dehydration. Patients often identify trigger foods by keeping a food diary. As migraines occur, the patient reviews the food diary to identify foods that appear to cause headaches. Removing possible triggers from the diet often provides relief for migraine sufferers.
Environmental triggers are another common factor in migraines. Times of high stress can cause migraines, as can “let down” periods of relaxation following periods of high stress. Chemicals and strong smells, such as perfume, cigarette smoke and paint are factors for some patients.
Changes in the weather, including fluctuations in barometric pressure and humidity, have also been shown to call migraines. Although no one can control the weather, and it is difficult to control exposure to outside fragrances, it is generally recommended that migraine patients keep stress levels at a minimum.
Although there is no cure for migraines, there are many effective treatments available. Before beginning any migraine treatment, it is important to discuss treatment options with a doctor.
Often the first road to treatment is abortive therapies. Abortive migraine drugs are taken after a migraine attack occurs. Most abortive drugs belong to the drug class known as triptans, which constrict the blood vessels that cause migraines. Common brand names for these drugs include Imitrex, Maxalt and Zomig; all of these drugs are available by prescription only.
A second treatment option is preventative therapy. Generally, this course of treatment is reserved for patients with severe migraines or patients that incur more than one migraine per week. Preventative therapy includes a variety of prescription drugs that are taken to help prevent migraine attacks. These drugs include high blood pressure medications such as Inderal, antidepressants such as Pamelor and anti-seizure medications such as Topamax.
There are many alternative migraine treatments available, including Botox, acupuncture and nutritional therapy. Although these treatments might work for some individuals, no alternative treatment has proven effective for migraine treatment.
For migraine sufferers, living with migraines is a constant battle. Understanding migraine triggers and treatments is the first step to living a migraine-free life.