Every year some 30 million Americans experience one or more migraine. Although it is a common condition, migraines are often confused with other types of headaches. A migraine is a very severe headache that occurs in episodes and are is often accompanied by other symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to light sensitivity and extreme fatigue. Not every headache, even a severe headache, can be classified as a migraine. But migraines may not always present in a typical manner and it is therefore sometimes difficult to differentiate a migraine from more common headaches like tension-type and cluster headaches.
It is important to understand some of the myths and facts surrounding migraines. Not only will it allow you to identify a migraine if you are a sufferer but it will also help you understand the extent of the condition in family, friends and colleagues who may be migraine sufferers. Although it is not a life-threatening condition, migraines can be debilitating and adversely affect a person’s quality of life. It can hamper personal, social and career activities. Sometimes migraines are linked to conditions that can be fatal.
You must have an aura for it to be a migraine
You may have heard about an aura that precedes the onset of the headache in a migraine. It may be flashing spots, wavy lines, blurred vision, abnormal smells, ringing in the ears or a tingling “electric” sensation through the body that occurs minutes before the pain strikes. An aura is typical of a migraine. However, a migraine does not always present with an aura. In fact it is now classified as migraine with aura or a common migraine is known as a migraine without aura according to the International Headache Society categorization.
Migraines are usually one-sided head pain
Migraines are typically one-sided (unilateral) but can occur on both sides (bilateral). This unilateral presentation can help differentiate migraines from other types of headaches but it is not always a reliable indicator. Sometimes the location may change – starting on one side, moving to the other side and the even affecting both sides simultaneously. Typically this one-sided headache is throbbing or pulsating in nature and tends to worsen with activity. But remember that a migraine can sometimes be anything but typical.
Alcohol, caffeine and chocolates are the triggers
Certain foods and beverages can be triggers for a migraine. But a trigger is not the same as the cause. Triggers bring on the episode and the exact cause of migraines remains unknown. Alcohol, caffeinated beverages and chocolates are some of the more common food and drink triggers but there are many others. Bananas, cheese, deli meats and baked goods are other triggers as well as additives such as artificial sweeteners and MSG (monosodium glutamate) are also a problem. Some migraine sufferers will respond to unique dietary triggers.
Only women get migraines
Both men and women can suffer with migraines. Up to 75% of people who suffer with migraines are women. In the United States, migraines account for 64% of severe headaches in women compared to 43% of severe headaches in men. The female to male ratio for migraines in 2.5:1. However, despite all these statistics it is also important to realize that some contributing factors and triggers may be more likely among women than men. Therefore its not solely a gender issue as to why women are more likely to get a migraine as compared to men.
Medication can be used for migraine prevention
There are drugs that are prescribed to prevent migraines. It is usually reserved for cases where the attack lasts for more than a day, is very frequent, affects your daily life and when medication to ease the pain does not work well. The approach is therefore aimed at preventing a migraine rather than trying to treat it once it starts. But migraine medication should not be shared. It is not effective in preventing other types of headaches and you could still develop these headaches when using migraine medication.
There are no other symptoms after the pain goes
Most of us experience a headache several times in life. For some people it is a regular occurrence. The pain lasts for a period of time and eases with or without treatment and you feel well thereafter. This is not usually the case with migraines. Even after the pain subsides in a migraine attack, you may still have other symptoms. Fatigue is a common symptom that persists afterwards. It is not just about feeling slightly more tired than you usually do. The fatigue after a migraine can be quite debilitating. Nausea and muscle strain may also be present.
Migraines become fewer and less painful with age
Migraines usually start in the teens or early adulthood. As a person gets older and usually after the age of 40 years, migraines become less frequent and also less painful. It is rare for migraines to start later in life especially after the age of 50 years. However, this change in migraine patterns may not hold true for women who are approaching menopause or in it already. The hormonal change associated with menopause can be a trigger for migraines, meaning that some women over 40 continue to suffer with migraines as badly and frequently as they did earlier in life.
Children of parents with migraines are at higher risk
Having one or both parents with a history of migraines increases your chances of having the condition. Studies have noted that when one parent is a migraine sufferer then the children are 50% at risk of suffering with migraines themselves. This risk rises to 75% if both parents are migraine sufferers. However, it is also important to realize that risk means that your chances are greater but it is not guaranteed that you will suffer with migraines in life. In fact, both your parents can be migraine sufferers and you may never experience the problem.
Exercise can trigger and worsen a migraine
Physical activity may worsen a migraine and certain activities could in fact trigger it. But do not shy away from exercise. In fact, exercise can also help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. Sleep and stress management are other lifestyle factors that may also be beneficial in preventing or minimizing the intensity of a migraine. Exercise not only directly helps with migraine management but also indirectly by helping to reduce your stress levels and allow for better quality sleep.
Migraines mean a higher risk of a stroke or heart attack
Migraines are linked to several other conditions. It has been found that people who suffer with migraines are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke as well as other conditions such as asthma. Migraines do not seem to cause a stroke or heart attack but is rather a concomitant ailment that can arise. There may be some common etiology (causation) or risk factors between migraines and a stroke or heart attack that are unknown. But do not worry about it. You are not guaranteed to have a stroke or heart attack just because you are a migraine sufferer.