If you’ve experienced a migraine, you know that it’s way more than just a headache.
Migraines can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours, and the symptoms can make doing everyday activities nearly impossible. In addition to intense throbbing pain on one side of the head, migraine sufferers can also experience nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
One of the most frustrating things about migraines is that we don’t really know what causes them. Old theories suggested that changes in blood flow to the brain triggered symptoms. However, new research shows this may contribute to pain, but it’s not the source. Today, doctors predict that an imbalance in brain chemicals, like serotonin, could irritate a major pain pathway called the trigeminal nerve, resulting in a migraine.
What we do know is that 36 million Americans live with migraines, and women are three times more likely to get them than men. One of the reasons women suffer more could be due to fluctuations in estrogen, especially during puberty, menstruation, and menopause.
While there is no cure, there are some helpful treatment options to manage symptoms. According to Nidhi Modi, MD, from Lawrenceville Neurology Center in New Jersey, many migraine sufferers are originally misdiagnosed with things like sinus headaches. So, the first step is to track symptoms with an app or journal.
“As they start to track their headaches, they’ll recognize what their triggers are and be able to minimize those and try to reduce their headache frequency,” Modi tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Common triggers of a migraine include certain foods, alcohol, stress, changes in sleep patterns, and even the weather. Caffeine is a trigger for some, but it is also included in some medications that help treat migraines. By pinpointing what is causing discomfort, this can help decrease migraine frequency and intensity.
Tracking can also help people to better predict when a migraine is coming. Around 30 percent of people go through a telltale “aura stage” before or during an attack. An aura is characterized by visual changes, including flashes of light, blind spots, and wavy zigzag vision.
The next step is pain management. Most people start with acute or rescue therapy, which involves taking over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen. If those are unsuccessful, doctors can also prescribe triptans, a class of drugs used to settle down overactive pain nerves.
Over-the-counter options can be helpful, but Modi warns that patients shouldn’t use them more than two or three times a week.
Instead, people with frequent migraines should talk to their physician and discuss some preventive care. This category of treatment often involves doctors prescribing medications that were developed for other reasons, but can be helpful in migraine relief. Some common options include seizure medication, antidepressants, and blood pressure medication.
If you don’t want to take a prescription, Modi suggests going another route: visiting a psychologist. “They can sit with a therapist and do biofeedback or cognitive behavioral therapy,” she says. “We also have devices available that are placed on the head and provide stimulation and relief for headaches.”
Doctors are still learning more about what causes migraines, but there is promising research centered around a protein called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP). Researchers have found that high levels of this protein appear in the blood of those having a migraine attack.
“There are many medications pending FDA approval at the moment that target CGRP,” notes Modi. “So patients should definitely ask their neurologist about those.”
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