You wake up in the middle of the night with a throbbing headache. You try to go back to sleep, but the pain is too intense. You get up and take some painkillers, hoping it will go away. But a few hours later, you’re still in agonizing pain. If you experience something like this on a regular basis, you may be suffering from migraines.
What is a Migraine?
A migraine is a type of headache that can cause intense throbbing or pulsing pain. The pain typically affects the left side of your head but can spread to other areas. Migraines can last for hours or even days, and the pain can get so severe that it interferes with your ability to work or go about your normal activities.
Most people will also experience other accompanying symptoms, such as nausea, excessive sensitivity to sound or light, and in some cases, vomiting. Migraines tend to occur in four distinct stages, but not everyone will experience all the stages.
Stages of a Migraine
This early stage can start up to two days before the actual migraine headache. During this prodrome phase, you may experience symptoms such as constipation, fatigue, mood swings, neck stiffness, and dehydration.
This phase typically occurs immediately before the headache pain begins. Auras are neurological symptoms that can include visual disturbances; such as flashing lights or blind spots, physical sensations; such as dizziness and tingling or numbness in the extremities; difficulty speaking; and temporary paralysis on one side of the body.
Although auras can cause serious discomfort, they are often a blessing in disguise as they can warn you that a migraine is about to start, giving you time to take medication to prevent or at least lessen the pain.
It is worth noting that not everyone will experience auras before or during a migraine attack. According to The Migraine Trust, only about 1 in 3 people with migraines will experience aura symptoms. It is also possible to experience auras without the actual headache attack.
The migraine attack is the actual headache phase. The pain is often debilitating, making it difficult to perform your normal activities, and can often go on for hours or days.
This final stage occurs after the headache pain has subsided. During this phase, you may feel drained and exhausted or experience residual pain. Some people also report feeling drowsy and confused.
What Causes Migraines?
The exact cause of migraines is not well understood. However, it’s thought they are caused by changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway. Scientists also believe that chemical imbalances in the brain may also play a part in the development of migraines.
Whichever the case, certain factors are known to trigger migraine attacks. These triggers can vary from person to person and include;
- Hormonal changes in women (due to menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause)
- Excessive stress, both physical and emotional
- Sleep deprivation or changes in sleep patterns
- Sensory stimuli, such as bright lights or strong smells
- Weather changes
- Mental Illnesses like depression and anxiety
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Certain foods and drinks (aged cheese, red wine, chocolate, caffeine, and MSG are some common triggers)
- Head trauma
- Genes or family history (migraines tend to run in families)
If you suffer from chronic migraines, it is important to try to identify your triggers and avoid them if possible. Keeping a migraine diary can also help you to identify any potential triggers.
Complications of Migraines
Although migraines are not life-threatening, they can have a significant impact on your quality of life. According to a report by The Journal of Headache and Pain, migraines are one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.
Migraines have also been associated with an increased risk for developing other serious health complications, such as;
- Heart disease
- Anxiety and depression
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Cognitive problems
There is no cure for migraines, but there are treatments that can help relieve symptoms and prevent future attacks. These treatments fall into two categories: abortive and preventive medication.
Abortive medications are intended to stop a migraine (or reduce the pain) once it has started and often include over-the-counter or prescription medications. Preventive medications, on the other hand, are taken regularly to help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.
Additionally, lifestyle changes and self-help techniques may help prevent migraines or lessen their frequency and intensity. These include massage therapy, regular exercise, healthy eating, heat/cold therapy, managing stress, avoiding triggers, practicing relaxation techniques, and getting enough sleep.