Migraine is a type of headache and one of the most prevalent medical conditions in the world. It affects women more than men and consists of episodes of severe pain affecting one or both sides of the head. It is sometimes accompanied by an aura. A migraine attack can last as long as 72 hours. Though the exact cause is not clear, migraines are caused by abnormal brain activities and are aggravated by certain trigger factors like alcohol, stress, loud noises or bright lights. There is no specific treatment for migraine, but steps can be taken to make sure that headache is averted or its severity is reduced.

Migraine is a type of neurological disorder whose predominant symptom is moderate to severe headaches. The episodes of migraine can be extremely painful and debilitating. According to WHO (2001), migraine is cited among the top 20 causes of disability reported in healthy adults as years lost to disability. It is three times more common in women than in men. Even children can get migraines, though a study by Goadsby (2002) demonstrated that they are more likely to get the attacks during their early adolescent years. 54% of those suffering from migraine report one attack per week while 13% report more than one attack per week. But, in spite of its severity, migraine remains undiagnosed in 50% cases. Among the diagnosed cases, only 50% consult a physician (Pavone et al 2007).

Causes of migraine

The exact underlying cause of migraine is unknown, but most scientists believe that it is a mixture of genetic and environmental factors that lead to the attacks. An episode begins in the brain and then spreads along the nerves and chemical pathways.

  • Certain genetic conditions can make a person vulnerable to migraine, but studies are still being conducted in this area.
  • Several triggers may lead to the onset of a migraine attack. Some of them are as follows:
    1. Excessive physical strain or exercise
    2. Mental stress and tension
    3. Exposure to smoke or tobacco
    4. Alcohol consumption
    5. Use of birth control pills
    6. Exposure to over-bright lights or over loud noise
    7. Missed meals
    8. Certain foods like processed foods, baked goods, onions, those containing tyramine like red wine, chicken liver, aged cheese and smoked fish

Not all the triggers have been included in the above list and not all of them affect the people with migraines. If you want to identify the triggers in order to avoid them, the best course of action is to maintain a headache diary and note down the triggers every time an attack occurs. In this way you will be able to recognize and avoid the condition.

Symptoms of migraine and its difference with a headache

The symptoms of migraine differ from person to person. Some of the common symptoms are as follows:

  • Pain in the eye/s
  • Pulsating and throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head
  • Temporary blind spots develop
  • Development of aura, but this may not occur in all cases
  • Zigzag lines across vision
  • Photophobia and phonophobia (excessive sensitivity to light and sound)
  • Tunnel vision

When a full blown migraine attack develops, other symptoms like the following appear:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Numbness, increased urination
  • Neck pain

Such an attack can last anywhere from 2 to 72 hours. Even after migraine has gone away, some of the symptoms like fatigue, neck pain and blurriness may linger. This is known as migraine hangover.

Though migraine is a type of headache, there are several points of differences between a migraine headache and a normal headache. These have been described as follows:

Criteria Migraine Headache
Intensity of pain Moderate to severe Mild to moderate
Quality of pain Throbbing and pulsing Dull tightness
Location of pain One or both sides of head Both sides of head
Others Presence of aura in some cases, increased sensitivity to light and sound, nausea None of these symptoms occur, though nausea may develop after prolonged headache

Treatment of migraine

Since the exact cause remains unknown, most of the treatment of migraine is aimed at the symptoms. If you see a person getting affected by migraine, your immediate action should be to remove that person from excess light or sound. For example, you can tie a bandana tightly around the head covering the eyes. Though the mechanism is not known, sufferers from migraine report significant pain relief. Similarly, if you can remove excess source of sound, that can be very helpful. Another first aid for migraine would be to make the person eat something like crackers. It must not be processed foods.

If you suffer from migraine, then you should try to take preventive measures so that you can recognize the early warning symptoms and avoid a full blown attack. Some of the preventive measures are as follows:

  • Lifestyle changes like elimination of alcohol and tobacco from diet or other trigger foods and elimination of too much physical activity; taking meals at fixed times etc
  • Gluten free diet
  • Self hypnosis

The common treatment options for migraine include pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. NSAIDs like Triptan are also used to stop a migraine attack. Surgery, biofeedback and neurostimulation are some of the latest options in treating migraine.

You can try one of the several home remedies to avoid migraine attacks or treat them when they occur. Some of these are as follows:

  • Mild but regular exercise spread over the week
  • Cold or hot compress on the head
  • Taking ginger capsules
  • Taking magnesium supplement
  • Extract of butterbar plant, grown in Germany
  • Cover head with a washcloth soaked in vinegar
  • Hot bath
  • Ice bag applied on the neck