Migraine headaches: 6 questions answered

1. What is a migraine?

Most of us have experienced headaches, even bad ones. But migraines can be severe, last for many hours and of a throbbing nature. Migraines occur when there is unwanted widening of the blood vessels in the brain. Pain is usually on one side of the head with nausea and there can be sensitivity to light and noise.

Some sufferers get early warning signs that a migraine is on the way. Craving for sweet foods, yawning a lot or feeling irritable and withdrawn are common. Around 30% of migraine sufferers get an aura, seeing flickering or jagged lines or lose vision. The aura can happen up to an hour before the headache and should settle as the headache starts (if it doesn’t, let your doctor know). 

2. Who can get migraines?

Women tend to get migraines more often than men due to changing hormone levels, especially around menstruation time. They get less frequent after menopause. Children can get migraines and those that do often complain of tummy ache. It is worth checking with your Doctor if your child gets lots of tummy aches and feels sick for no obvious reason. 

3. What causes migraines?

Sensitivity to some foods and smells, changing hormone levels, stress and fatigue can trigger migraines but the underlying cause is thought to be genetic and we don’t really understand why. Common foods to act as triggers are cheese, chocolate, wines, citrus fruits, bananas or caffeine. These foods contain tyramine which is thought to make your blood vessels narrow. When that happens, blood vessels in your brain can then widen to let more blood through, causing a migraine. Experimenting with removing these foods from your diet and seeing if it makes a difference to how often you get migraines, can be useful.

4. What treatments are available?

Treatment for migraines include pain killers and the group of medicines, triptans. Derived from a building block of protein called tryptophan, triptans are designed to act on serotonin receptors in the brain. They attach to the receptor to cause the blood vessels to narrow, reversing the effect of the migraine. They include Sumatriptan which, under special conditions, can be bought from your pharmacist without a prescription. It is important to note that these treatments can contribute to headaches if used more than 10 times a month. Long-term medicines may also be used to reduce the number of migraine attacks.

5. Can migraines be prevented?

As many of the triggers for migraines are food related, there are a number of dietary measures that can be tried to prevent migraines coming on. Research has shown that increased vitamin B levels can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, especially in migraines with auras. Diets low in tyramine have been helpful for some people but not others. Low magnesium levels have also been linked with migraines. Magnesium is thought to support normal functioning of smooth muscle cells and deficiency affects the body's ability to carry oxygen in the blood and may promote contraction of the smooth muscles in the lining of blood vessels. It is well absorbed through the skin so oils can be used. Co-enzyme Q10 is another supplement with increasing evidence of reducing migraine incidence. Ask your pharmacist which supplements will be best for you.

A well balanced, nutritious diet and a regular fluid intake is an ideal foundation to start from. Explore any unidentified food intolerances and try keeping a symptom diary that includes stress levels, life events, foods, drinks and migraine symptoms. Look back on the diary after a month to look for patterns and triggers. Remember though, that triggers can happen together. Once you know what sets off a migraine, you can work to avoid it.

6. What else can help?

Try to regulate sleep patterns to have 7-8 hours of sleep a night, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. If stress is a problem, change what you can to avoid stress. If this isn’t possible, take time to relax with meditation, yoga, exercise or doing whatever you love doing to unwind.



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