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What are Migraines?

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 19 Jul 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Migraine Headache Treatment Trigger

A migraine headache is a severe headache with pain felt on one or both sides of the head. The pain is typically concentrated around the front part of the head near the temples, or behind an eye or ear. The headache may last for several hours or even several days.

Who Gets Migraines?

There are approximately 6 million adults in the UK who suffer from migraines. Roughly 1 in 4 women, or 1 in 12 men will get a migraine at some point in their life. Frequency ranges a great deal, with some people experiencing migraines rarely and others having several each week.

Signs You May Be Experiencing A Migraine

There are several phases involved in a migraine headache and not every sufferer will experience each phase. Awareness of migraine symptoms may be helpful when you first visit your doctor to communicate your discomfort. In the pre-headache phase, the sufferer may experience the following symptoms:

  • Muscle tension
  • Heightened sensory awareness
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Gastrointestinal upset such as diarrhoea or constipation
  • Intense thirst
  • Depression
  • Hyperactivity

For those who do have a distinctive pre-headache phase, it can be helpful to identify the symptoms occurring to allow for immediate treatment. This may prevent the migraine from escalating into a painful headache phase. In the headache phase, a person may experience:

  • Throbbing headache
  • Pain on one side
  • Pins and needles
  • Loss of concentration
  • Mild pain that escalates to severe
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Tenderness in neck
  • Mood disruption

Classic or Common?

Migraines are also categorized into two types: classic and common.

In a classic migraine headaches, a person has visual symptoms known as an 'aura.' These tend to occur 10 minutes to half an hour before the migraine attack. The sufferer may see flashing lights or zigzag lines and may also experience blind spots or vision loss for some time. An aura can also involve seeing unusual sights or hearing odd sounds. A person's overall sensory perception may become very distorted.

In a common migraine, no aura is involved but the other symptoms of migraines, such as head pain and nausea, generally occur.

What Causes Migraines?

The exact cause of migraine headaches is not clearly understood, despite ongoing research. A decrease followed by an increase in blood flow to part of the brain is suggested to contribute to a migraine. The stretching of a blood vessel wall thus results in the pain experienced. It is also thought that migraines may be caused by the release of specific chemicals, which then cause inflammation and pain. Levels of serotonin seem to decrease at the onset of a migraine attack but are normal during migraine free periods.

Recent studies have linked genes to migraine. It is suggested that people who suffer from migraines may inherit abnormal genes that control the functions of certain brain cells. In those who are predisposed to migraine, the attack may then be set off when some part of the brain becomes 'over-excited' by a specific stimulus or 'trigger.' Triggers vary from person to person, but common dietary and environmental ones have been identified.

One of the first steps to managing your migraine and receiving proper treatment is understanding just what a migraine is; hopefully a greater knowledge will mean better treatment of the disease. By becoming informed and talking to your doctor, you can learn more about managing migraines.

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