This week is Migraine Awareness Week, so today I’ve been asked to talk to you about this common, yet misunderstood condition. If you or someone you know suffers from migraines, then you will be all too familiar with the impact they can have on your life, your job and your health in general. A migraine often wrongly gets referred to as ‘just a headache’, but individuals who have experienced one will know that it is much more than this.
“Ok, so what IS a migraine?”
Migraines normally present themselves as an intense, pounding, throbbing, debilitating head pain. They can occur on one or both sides of the head, and usually cause the sufferer to become very sensitive to light and/or sounds around them. Often it is accompanied by feelings of nausea or vomiting and typically lasts between 1-3 days. Some migraine sufferers experience an ‘aura’ before an attack, which involves visual interference such as dark or coloured spots, zigzagging lines, sparkles or flashing lights. Sometimes the aura includes feelings of numbness or tingling, dizziness and spinning or disturbances to hearing and speech. Adults will typically experience the ‘aura’ before the onset of a migraine but children sometimes experience it alongside the headache.
“That sounds nasty. But it’s pretty rare, right?”
Actually, no. It’s the most common neurological condition in the world, and it’s more prevalent than asthma, diabetes and epilepsy combined. Over 8 million people in the UK alone suffer from migraines, with 18% of women and 8% of men affected by them.
“How do I know if I have it?”
Nearly everyone has experienced a horrible headache at least once, but the difference between a regular headache and a migraine is the nature of the headache and how it affects you. A migraine is a very intense pounding or throbbing sensation, made worse by movement, whereas a tension or sinus headache tends to be a steady ache. Migraine sufferers normally find that they are completely debilitated by an attack and cannot tolerate bright light or loud noises. Migraines are nearly always accompanied by nausea or vomiting, whereas regular headaches are not. Migraines also normally start on one side of the head only. When recovering from a migraine, sufferers often experience a sort of ‘hangover’ feeling for up to a couple of days. If you think you may suffer from migraines, you should see your doctor to obtain a diagnosis and discuss the best method of treatment.
“My parents suffered from migraines. Does that mean I will too?”
Research suggests that there is a genetic link to migraines, although their cause is still not fully understood. It does often run in families and migraine attacks can start at any age. In children, they usually begin in their early to mid teens. People who suffer from migraines often find that attacks become less severe and less frequent as they get older.
“Is there anything I can do to stop an attack from happening?”
Migraines are triggered by a variety of factors and events. They are understood to be caused due to abnormal changes in the levels of substances naturally produced in the brain. These changes can be triggered by diet, environment or lifestyle. Identifying possible triggers of your migraines and making necessary diet/lifestyle changes to avoid them should help to reduce, if not completely stop, your attacks from happening.
Common triggers include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Relaxation after a stressful period (‘comedown’)
- Sudden vigorous exercise (if you do not normally exercise)
- Changes to routine/travelling
- Not getting enough sleep/getting too much sleep
- Some weather changes/seasonal changes in air pressure, altitude and humidity
- Loud noises, bright lights or strong odours
- Computer screens
- Skipped meals/not eating enough
- Alcohol (particularly red wine)
- Caffeine (too much/withdrawal)
- Cheese (particularly soft cheeses such as camembert and brie)
- Certain food additives such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and nitrates
- Mild dehydration
- Hormone changes that occur during the menstrual cycle can trigger attacks
- Oral contraceptives can also trigger migraines. If you are a migraine sufferer, you should always consult your GP before you start taking any oral contraceptive.
Even if you make these necessary changes, some people still suffer from migraine attacks. If your migraines are particularly severe or frequent, sometimes you may be prescribed preventative medication by your GP to help to reduce the frequency of the attacks.
“If I am having a migraine, what should I do?”
If taken early on during an attack, taking medication can help reduce the severity or shorten the length of the migraine. If you intend on taking pain relief, it is important to take it at the first sign of an attack. Most over-the-counter analgesics such as paracetamol often fail to stop a migraine as they are normally taken too late during an episode and the digestive system slows down during a migraine. There are several migraine-targeted painkillers available over-the-counter from pharmacies, such as Migraleve® or Imigran®. Alternative treatments to medication include heat such as a hot water bottle, or a cold ice pack applied to the painful area, or applying pressure to the pulse points either side of the forehead and neck. Sometimes lying down in a dark, quiet room or a long nap is enough to alleviate the symptoms considerably.
If you find that your migraines are becoming increasingly frequent or debilitating, keeping a migraine diary of your attacks, including details such as what you ate or drank before an attack, whether there were any warning signs, how long the migraine lasted and the severity of the symptoms, can help to identify your triggers and will help your doctor find you the best treatment to manage your migraines. The Migraine Trust offers a free online Migraine Diary service.
“Where should I go to get more information about Migraine?”
The Migraine Trust website has a wealth of information about migraines and how to treat them:
And here at Express Chemist, we sell a variety of treatments for Migraine, both medicinal and alternative, to help you manage your attacks:
Now you can also support The Migraine Trust when you shop with us through Easy Fundraising, where we will donate 1.5% of your total purchase to help fund important research into Migraine and its causes.
If you would like to get more involved in Migraine Awareness week, why not join in the conversation on Twitter? Using the hashtag #morethanjustaheadache, you can discuss the impact of migraine and raise awareness.
Stay healthy, stay happy!