Migraines are a challenging health issue, one that research shows are more likely to occur in women than men. Individuals of any age can be afflicted with a migraine headache, and in fact, family history is a major risk factor for having migraines.
While it’s true that migraines are a big pain, literally, they are quite different than the average tension headache which occurs across both hemispheres and is typically relieved by an over the counter pain reducer. Migraines are the result of a neurological condition and can result in multiple symptoms.
It’s common for a migraine headache to be debilitating to the point that an individual is rendered virtually immobile. Other symptoms can include sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, numbness or tingling and difficulty speaking.
How do you know if you’re having a migraine headache? Migraine sufferers commonly describe the sensations they experience as pounding, stabbing, pulsating and throbbing, with some feeling severe aching and/or a dull pain sensation.
The pain that results from migraine can begin as a mild sensation, but grows to a moderate to severe pain without any treatment.
Believe it or not, symptoms that precede a migraine can appear 24 to 48 hours prior to head pain, with this period of time referred to as the prodrome stage.
During this time typical symptoms include:
Unlike a typical headache that tends to affect both sides of the head, a migraine is usually experienced on one side of the head, although it can transfer to the other side.
When you see a health professional about head pain, a diagnosis of migraine is typically based on your reported symptoms, a physical, clinical and family history as well as the use of a CT scan or MRI to rule out other causes. Other causes of severe head pain can include stroke and tumors, so it is wise to consult with your health care professional you are experiencing any of the symptoms above.
There are several characteristics that distinguish types of migraines, however, migraine headaches with and without aura, are the ones most frequently discussed. A migraine with aura occurs after the prodrome stage and is typified by difficulties with vision, speech, sensation, and movement.
Here are some examples of aura symptoms:
- losing your vision temporarily
- difficulty speaking clearly
- inability to control body movements
- seeing light flashes or bright spots
- problems hearing
- sensing a tingling feeling in the arms, legs or face
- decreased consciousness
- ringing in the ears
- double vision
The attack phase follows the prodrome phase and this is when the most severe pain is felt. Unfortunately, attack phase symptoms can last hours to days. Some of the common symptoms include the following:
- pain on one side or the back of your head, or in the temple
- increased sensitivity to sound and light
- dizziness or fainting
- stabbing, throbbing head pain
For many sufferers, what is known as the postdrome phase is experienced next. In this period alterations in mood are typical, with feelings of euphoria and extreme happiness reported all the way to apathy and fatigue. During this time it’s not uncommon for a much milder headache to persist.
While we know that these migraine phases exist, they occur with variations in different people. For example, the intensity and duration of the phases are variable, occurring to different degrees in different people. It’s also known that migraines related to the menstrual cycle affect up to 60% percent of women who have migraine pain. Research indicates that menstrual-related migraines tend to be more intense, longer-lasting and cause greater levels of pain than migraines not linked to menstruation.
So, what exactly causes that most dreaded of headache pain, migraines?
To date, experts have not definitively identified one single cause for migraine headaches. However, research has pinpointed several factors that may contribute to or trigger the condition, including a change in brain chemistry, for instance, a drop in serotonin.
Here is a list of other factors associated with the onset of migraine:
- loud sounds
- bright lights
- severe heat, or other weather extremes
- changes in barometric pressure
- excess stress
- hormone fluctuations in women, e.g. estrogen and progesterone changes during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause
- change in sleep patterns
- intense physical activity
- unusual smells
- skipping meals
- certain foods
- alcohol use
Migraine headaches can have a negative impact on your quality of life. If you know you are experiencing a migraine there are a few recommendations to mediate the pain including:
- Putting a cold cloth over your forehead or behind your neck
- Lie down in a quiet, dark room
- Massage your temple or scalp
Be sure to consult with a medical professional if headaches affect your day to day function. There are many treatment options available that your doctor can suggest, life is too short to live with this kind of pain!
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