Most of us use the word Migraine to describe a bad headache, but in actual fact Migraines are far more complex than that. A migraine is a ‘primary headache’ – meaning it is not a symptom of another problem, such as a cold. For sufferers, migraines are severely debilitating.
Migraine is not as common as we might think, with only 15% of the UK population suffering migraines. Anyone can be a sufferer – from a baby to an elderly person, although it is more common in the productive years. Two thirds of sufferers are women. An attack can last anywhere from a few hours to 72 hours; the sufferer will often be left feeling listless and drained for a few days afterwards however.
The cause of migraines is not fully understood. Until a few years ago it was assumed the migraine was caused by a spasm followed by a sudden dilation of the blood vessels in the brain, but now it is understood to be more complex. The effect of changing levels of a hormone called Seratonin in the body which in turn effects the blood vessels in the brain is now thought to be significant.
The actual headache is defined as common or classic, dependant on the presence of an aura. The ‘common’ migraine is one without an aura and the ‘classic’ being with an aura. An aura is like a warning sign sent from the brain before a headache, and although it can be a range of sensations, it is commonly zigzag lines or blindspots in vision or even numbness of the limbs. This can occur anything from 15 minutes to an hour before the headache.
Sufferers symptoms range from person to person, but there are a number of ‘classic’ symptoms that seem to be generic to everyone. The major symptom is a an intense, throbbing headache, often only on one side of the head. The headache is often accompanied other common symptoms:
- nausea and / or vomiting
- An increased sensitivity to light
- An increased sensitivity to sound
- An increased sensitivity to smell
When having a migraine, sufferers will want to rest in a quiet, darkened room.
Whilst we know the chemical reaction that is responsible for migraines, we are not sure of the triggers that are responsible for causing that reaction to start. For most people, a number of triggers are needed to combine to start the reaction that causes a migraine. These triggers are as unique to the person as their symptoms, but commonly include emotional and physical stress causing a change in to a persons routine, a change in environment including exposure to bright lights and noises and hormonal change in women.
Food and diet also seem to play an important role for migraine siufferers. We have all heard of cheese starting migraines, but foods such as caffeine, additives and red wine are also common triggers. For migraine sufferers it seems particularly important to eat regularly and avoid dehydration.
There are over the counter and prescription drugs available to treat an attack once it has started. For people with very frequent attacks (more than 1 a week) there are preventative drugs available on prescription but need to be taken regularly for around 6 months and rarely eliminate attacks completely. Because of the adverse long term affects of many of these medications, sufferers are increasingly looking to minimise triggers in their lives and seek alternatives through complimentary therapy.