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What Causes Migraines?

Reviewed on 8/20/2020

The exact cause of migraine headaches is unclear, but an imbalance of neurotransmitters and/or trigeminal nerve problems may be the culprits.
The exact cause of migraine headaches is unclear, but an imbalance of neurotransmitters and/or trigeminal nerve problems may be the culprits.

Researchers assume that migraine occurs because of an imbalance in the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that send messages between the brain cells. The resulting imbalance causes the nerve cells to undergo changes responsible for headaches. The trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve) may also be involved in these pain mechanisms.

People with migraines react to various factors and events, known as triggers. A combination of triggers may set off an attack. 

Some common triggers include:

  • Genetics
  • Hormones
  • Medications
  • Stress
  • Foods and drinks which trigger migraines include:
    • Aged cheese
    • Alcohol
    • Food additives such as nitrates and monosodium glutamate
    • Caffeinated beverages
  • Weather changes
  • Feeling very tired
  • Skipping meals
  • Changes in sleeping pattern

What Is a Migraine?

Migraine is an episodic disorder characterized by a severe headache generally associated with nausea and/or light and sound sensitivity.

Migraine is a chronic disease. Most people with migraine feel the pain in one eye or ear or the temples. 

About 25% of people with migraines experience aura. An aura is a specific symptom (usually tingling of arms or symptoms related to vision) that precedes migraine or accompanies it.

Migraine can occur at any time of the day, although in some cases, it usually starts in the morning. The pain may last for a few hours or up to one to two days. The frequency of a migraine attack varies from individual to individual. In some, it may occur once or twice a week, whereas in others, it may occur once or twice a year. Migraine significantly diminishes the quality of life. 

Migraine is the third most prevalent disease, globally, affecting one billion people.

Are Migraine More Common in Males or Females?

Migraine is most seen in women. Every three out of four women are affected by migraines at some point in their lives. 

Some of the most common triggers affecting women are:

  • Changes in hormonal levels or birth control pills
  • Lack of sleep or too much sleep
  • Skipped meals
  • Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odour
  • Anxiety
  • Red wine
  • Sleeping pills

Men may experience migraine mainly because of physical and lifestyle triggers. Some of the common triggers affecting men are:

SLIDESHOW

16 Surprising Headache Triggers and Tips for Pain Relief See Slideshow

What Are the Signs and Symptoms Seen in Migraine Headaches?

The two forms of migraine are migraine with aura and migraine without aura. 

Migraine with aura: A person with this migraine type might observe below symptoms (aura) 10 to 30 minutes before an attack or even accompanying the headache:

  • Seeing flashing lights, zigzag lines, or blind spots
  • Numbness or tingling in the face or hands
  • Altered sense of smell, taste, or touch
  • Feeling mentally “fuzzy”

Migraine without aura: In this, a person does not have an aura, but has all typical symptoms of an attack.

The symptoms of a migraine attack are:

  • Throbbing headache which worsens after a physical activity
  • Sensitivity to light, noise, and smell
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling warm or cold
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Pale skin
  • Blurred vision
  • Diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Impairment in language

How Are Migraine Headaches Treated?

There’s no cure for migraine headaches. Medications along with some alternative therapies may treat or even prevent a migraine attack, however.

Medications commonly used in the treatment of migraines:

  • Triptans are the main group of medications to manage migraine.
  • Imitrex (Sumatriptan) as a shot or nasal spray. 
  • This is good if you often get sick to your stomach or throw up during a migraine. 
  • Frova (Frovatriptan) and Amerge (naratriptan) stay in your body for a long time, which helps if your migraines tend to last a while.
  • Pain relief medicines: NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as paracetamol and naproxen are particularly effective.
  • Nausea medicines: Medications such as domperidone and ondansetron may treat nausea symptoms.
  • Antidepressants, calcium-channel blockers, and beta-blockers can help prevent the attack.

Alternative therapies useful in treating migraine attack are:

  • Biofeedback: This technique involves recognizing the stressful situations that could trigger an attack.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation: This technique involves sending a pulse of magnetic energy to the specific regions of the brain to stop or reduce pain.

Some lifestyle changes that can help prevent migraine attacks include:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Maintaining a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Regular exercise, but avoid exertion
  • Keeping track of all the triggers
  • Taking preventive medicines to avoid migraine headaches around the time of periods
  • Eating at regular intervals
  • Reducing stress
  • Avoiding foods which trigger attacks
  • Rubbing or applying the pressure to the spot where you feel pain
  • Placing a cold cloth on the head during a headache

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Reviewed on 8/20/2020
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