Migraine Headache

Migraines are chronic headaches that affect almost 30 million people in the United States. They cause severe and sometimes debilitating pain that can last from 4 hours to 3 days and, at times, longer. Migraines are most often experienced by people between the ages of 15 and 55, with more women than men affected. Of those affected, 70 to 80 percent have a family history of migraines.

Symptoms of Migraine-Headache Aura

A migraine can occur with or without an aura, which is an early warning sign of a migraine. If an aura does appear, it is usually 10 to 30 minutes before a migraine begins. Twenty percent of patients experience an aura prior to the onset of a migraine. An aura's symptoms are usually visual, and may include:

  • A zigzag pattern of light
  • A blind spot
  • Tunnel vision
  • Flashes of light
  • Blurry vision
  • Muscle weakness

There are several different types of migraines, including cluster headaches, ocular migraines and tension headaches.

Causes of Migraine Headache

Although the exact cause of migraines is unknown, there is to believed to be a genetic link, or changes in brain chemicals, most notably serotonin, which helps regulate pain in the nervous system. Serotonin levels are affected by many different things, including:

  • Blood-sugar levels
  • Estrogen levels (in women)
  • Strong odors
  • Changes in weather
  • Fatigue
  • Missed meals
  • Emotional stress
  • Caffeine levels

Migraines can often be managed by avoiding their triggers, and by maintaining a healthy and stress-free lifestyle.

Symptoms of Migraine Headache

Patients with migraine headaches often experience:

  • Dull, throbbing or severe pain on one or both sides of the head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in vision
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Neck pain
  • Confusion
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Lightheadedness
  • Stuffy nose

Symptoms may vary by patient, but most find that migraines interfere with their regular activities. Symptoms can last from 4 hours to 3 days, and may occur up to several times a month.

Treatment of Migraine Headache

Although there is no cure available for migraines, there are several medications that help relieve their symptoms, or prevent them from occurring. Pain-relieving medications, which are referred to as acute or abortive treatment, should be taken at the first sign of symptoms. These medications include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Triptans
  • Anti-nausea medication
  • Opiates
  • Biofeedback
  • Chiropractic adjustment
  • Acupuncture
  • Pain relievers
  • Corticosteroid

There are preventive medications that can be taken daily to reduce the severity and frequency of migraines; they include:

  • Cardiovascular drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • BOTOX injections

Alternative treatments for migraine headaches include biofeedback, stress management and acupuncture.

Additional Resources