Those who suffer from migraines describe their symptoms in different ways. Some describe a sense of numbness that spreads throughout their extremities. Others describe loss of appetite or severe nausea. Still others feel confused and disoriented until the migraine passes.
Common to all migraine sufferers, however, is the sense of pain. Sometimes, the pain is big and heavy, "like a 25 pound pumpkin on my head" (Moe 20). Other times, the pain is sharp and concentrated, "like a knife in my eye" (Moe 6).
Medical Definition of a Migraine
Medical professionals characterize migraines as a "chronic paroxysmal disorder" which is typically free from symptoms in between attacks. This disorder is often followed by "transient focal neurological symptoms," such as photophobia and blurred vision. In many cases, the pain is severe enough to incapacitate the sufferer, necessitating bed rest (Spierings, 9).
B. Differences between a migraine and a headache
In laymen's terms, this means that not all headaches are migraines. Instead, a migraine is a specific type of headache that is characterized by visual problems and an intense throbbing pain concentrated on one side of the head ("Migraine: It's All in Your Head").
Migraines and headaches have different causes.
The pain associated with a headache is caused by vasoconstriction, the medical term for the narrowing of blood vessels in the brain. A migraine's cause, however, is just the opposite. During a migraine, the blood vessels in the brain expand, in a process called vasodilation.
This causes a swelling of the tissues around the brain, which makes the pain worse. When migraine suffers take headache medicine geared treat vasoconstriction, they inadvertently dilate the blood vessels further. This in turn causing increased swelling, thereby making the migraine worse (Coleman and Burchfield).
Another major distinction is that a headache is only a symptom, while a migraine is a disease. Physicians like Stephen J. Peroutka further state that migraine is a "genetically-based illness." Since it is a disease, a migraine can be accompanied by many symptoms like nausea, vomiting, a sensitivity to light and sound, seeing auras or light sports, and speech difficulties. Unlike headaches, a migraine attack can last for hours, days or continue on for several weeks (Coleman and Burchfield).
C. Causes of a migraine
In addition to genetics, physicians generally divide the causes of migraines into three main headings.
Scientists have identified several foods that could trigger migraine headaches. These include alcohol like beer and red wine, aspartame, avocados, bananas, large doses of caffeine, monosodium glutamate, citrus fruits like lemons and limes, nuts and seeds, onions, dairy products like milk and sour cream, and nitrites (Ash).
In addition to specific foods, migraine headaches can also be caused by poor nutrition, skipping meals or not eating regularly (MacGregor and Dunitz 8). In addition, delaying meals can bring the onset of low blood sugar, setting off a chain reaction that usually leads to a migraine (Ash).
Migraines can also be triggered by environmental factors, like strong perfume, bright or flickering light, secondhand smoke, air pollution or even weather changes ("Migraine: It's All in Your Head").
Other findings include altitude changes and noise, especially loud and constant sounds. Weather-related factors are a particularly troublesome migraine trigger, because of the weather is beyond the migraine sufferer's control. Many migraines are triggered by weather changes, such as a sudden wind, increased humidity or during thunderstorms (Moe 40).
Still other migraines are triggered by reactions related to the body. The fact that more women than men suffer from migraines leads many scientists to posit that menstruation and fluctuating estrogen hormone levels play a key role in triggering migraines in women (MacGregor and Dunitz 8).
A migraine can also be the body's response to emotional triggers like tension and stress. Many migraine sufferers feel their symptoms worsen in proportion to the stress level at their jobs (Ash).
Certain medications, like birth control pills and some antibiotics, are thought to be potential migraine triggers. Too much exertion during exercise or caused by heavy lifting can also cause migraines. Depression and emotional turmoil related to problems like divorce or a death in the family could also lead to a migraine headache. The body may also react negatively to travel across various time zones or to too much or too little sleep, resulting in migraine headaches (Moe 40).
II. Different types of migraines
This type of migraine headache affects 20% of the estimated 18 million Americans who suffer from migraine headaches.
A classic migraine headache usually begins with a phenomenon called aura, where the sufferer sees light changes. This could occur from five to 20 minutes before the actual headache. It is often accompanied by photophobia or hypersensitivity to light. Other signs include numbness or tingling in the arms or legs. Many classic migraine sufferers also report hallucinations, seeing flashing lights, smelling strange odors and temporary loss of vision ("Your best response to headache pain.").
A classic headache affects only one side of the head and may last for several hours or days ("Migraine Symptoms, Treatment and Causes").
Common migraines do not have the accompanying symptom of aura or light changes. Instead of hallucinations, people who suffer from common migraines have less dramatic symptoms, including mood swings, water retention and fatigue. As in the case of the classic migraine, common migraine sufferers feel pain on one side of the head. This pain, however, can spread to different areas of the head ("Your best response to headache pain.").
The common migraines are severe enough to wake a person from a sound sleep. They occur several times a week and, like classic migraines, can last for up to several days ("Your best response to headache pain.").
Transformed migraines often start out as an episodic tension headache. Those who suffer from these headaches report feeling like a belt has been stretched tight around their heads. These tension headaches can eventually give way to migraines that last for several hours or days (Moe 22).
D. Chronic migraine is an umbrella category, and can be further split into a common or a classic migraine. This is sometimes referred to as a "chronic tension headache" or "chronic daily headache." Sufferers describe it as a headache every day of their life (Moe 23).
III. Various Treatments
A. Triggers to Avoid
The first step towards treating a migraine is the recognition of what triggers a patient's migraines.
Migraine sufferers should avoid skipping meals, since hypoglycemia or low blood sugar often triggers a migraine. Physicians recommend eating six small meals a day, making sure that each meal has some protein and some form of complex carbohydrates. Physicians additionally recommend the reduction of simple carbohydrates such as sugar and sweets, especially when these foods are eaten alone (Mauskop and Fox 114).
In addition to regular meals, physicians also recommend a diet rich in healthy natural food, with generous helpings of minerals such as:
Copper (seafood, liver, whole grains)
Folic acid (green leafy vegetables, sprouts, organ meat)
Iron (oysters, liver, red meat, spinach, tomato sauce)
Magnesium (wheat bran, vegetables, legumes and nuts)
Niacin (fish, chicken, mushrooms, asparagus)
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils, green vegetables)
Riboflavin (milk, mushrooms, liver, spinach) (Mauskop and Fox, 115-117)
Experts also recommend removing environmental triggers that are known to contribute to migraine sufferers. People with migraines should thus avoid using perfumes or perfumed products, such as household cleaners. They should change the air filters in their homes regularly and maintain the cleanliness of their drapes, carpets and upholstered furniture (Mauskop and Fox 121).
In addition, migraine experts also recommend reducing humidity in the home, since migraines can also be triggered by mold, yeast, algae and dust mites (Mauskop and Fox 121).
Perhaps the most difficult trigger to avoid is the weather. Some countries, however, have instituted programs to help its migraine-suffering citizens. Germany, for example, has a telephone number that migraine sufferers can call to inquire about the weather's risk of triggering a migraine (Coleman and Burchfield).
B. Medical Treatment
Many people take over the counter analgesic medication for their migraines, hoping to stem the pain. However, these pills are ineffective against treating migraines because they do not address the root cause of the pain.
When the pain is acute, physicians recommend the use of triptans. Unlike aspirin or ibuprofen, triptans have vasoconstrictor properties. They therefore serve to narrow the severely dilated blood vessels in a migraine sufferer's brain (MacGregor and Dunitz 22).
As an alternative, physicians sometime prescribe drugs called ergots. One form, ergotamine, is administered through a rectal suppository. However, this drug can cause severe side-effects. Another ergot, dihydroenergotamine, has shown fewer side effects and is administered through a nasal spray (MacGregor and Dunitz 24-25).
The growing interest in natural health and holistic healing has given rise to alternative forms of migraine treatment that do not rely on prescription drugs. Instead, these treatments employ a variety of lifestyle changes and relaxation techniques to address the many stress- and environment-related triggers of migraines.…