Migraines are more than just headaches — they’re a complex neurological condition that can significantly impact your quality of life. Let’s delve into what migraines are, what causes them, and explore the evidence-based options that can help treat them.
What are migraines?
A migraine is a recurring, moderate to severe headache that features intense throbbing pain, often concentrated on one side of your head. The impact of migraines can be truly debilitating, with attacks lasting anywhere from 4 hours to 3 days. In the UK alone, approximately 10 million people suffer from migraines, leading to a significant toll on public health (1).
Migraine attacks are often accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or movement. These symptoms set migraines apart from normal headaches, which typically lack these ‘neurological disturbances’.
Another notable aspect of migraines is the occurrence of auras. These are temporary visual disturbances, such as flashing lights, zigzag lines, blurry vision, or blind spots, that act as warning signs that a migraine attack is imminent.
What causes migraines?
Although the exact causes of migraines are still unknown, ongoing research has shown that having a first-degree relative with migraines increases your risk of experiencing them by 1.5-4x. (2).
Migraine triggers can vary widely among different people, but common factors include stress, excessive caffeine intake, lack of exercise, menstrual cycles, and irregular eating patterns.
Migraines vs headaches
Understanding the difference between migraines and regular headaches is essential for proper diagnosis and management:
- Pain on one side of the head
- Accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light
- Possible visual disturbances (auras)
- Triggers include stress, hormonal changes, lack of sleep
- Can last for days
- Pain on both sides of the head
- No associated neurological symptoms
- No clear trigger factors identified
- Typically lasts for a few hours
How to treat migraines
When a migraine attack strikes, finding a quiet, darkened room to rest in can provide some relief. Applying a cold compress to the head and neck may also help.
For acute treatment during an attack, there are several options:
- Over-the-counter medications: Paracetamol, ibuprofen, and aspirin can help manage migraine symptoms. However, frequent use of these medications can lead to medication-overuse headaches. If your migraines persist despite over-the-counter treatment, it’s best to contact a healthcare professional.
- Triptans: These medications target serotonin receptors in the brain, reducing inflammation and constricting blood vessels to alleviate migraine-related pain. Sumatriptan, among other types of triptans, is recommended as a first-line option for acute migraine relief.
- Antiemetics: These anti-sickness medications can be taken alongside pain relief to combat nausea and vomiting, common symptoms accompanying migraines.
For prevention, treatments aim to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. Some commonly prescribed medications include:
- Beta blockers: Originally used for heart conditions, beta blockers like propranolol have been found effective in preventing migraines for some people.
- Other preventative measures: Medications like Amitriptyline and topiramate can also be used to reduce the occurrence of migraines.
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