The Unique Pain of Migraines

The Unique Pain of Migraines

Credit: myRegence.com

Discover what a migraine really is, what causes it, and how to prevent it.

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by By Lisa Cannon /

KING5.com

Posted on April 15, 2009 at 9:16 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:52 PM

About the Author

Lisa Cannon has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. She writes about everything from the health benefits of journal writing to the best ways to recycle computer hardware. She lives in beautiful Portland, Ore.

Most migraine sufferers are veritable poets of pain. Having one of these headaches can make agony into an art form. Each stabbing ache creates fireworks of colors, shooting lights, tunnels of darkening vision. Every whisper sounds like a shout, every noise breaks like shattering glass. Read on to learn what a migraine really is, what causes it, and how you can prevent it.

What Is a Migraine?Your average headache is usually caused by muscle tension, vascular problems, or both. Migraines are vascular. Though your brain can't feel pain, vascular spasms of the cranial blood vessels cause the symptoms of a migraine attack, which may include heightened sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, auras (loss of vision in one eye or tunnel vision), difficulty of speech, and intense pain on one side of the head.

And in fact the word migraine comes from the Greek word hemikrania, meaning "half of the head" because the pain usually starts on one side. Of course, it sometimes spreads to the entire head and continues to the rest of the body in the form of nausea, vomiting, neck pain, numbness in the extremities, tingling, and overall fatigue. Migraines can make you dizzy, irritable, physically weak and unable to think clearly.   Migraine is now recognized as a chronic illness, not just a headache. About 28 million people suffer from them annually. Untreated migraines can last anywhere from four to 72 hours, but the frequency varies. You might have migraines several times a month, or once or twice a year. Twenty-five percent of women and 8 percent of men get migraines sometime during their lifetime.

Pulling the TriggerWomen often get migraines along with their periods. In fact, hormones are a common migraine trigger. Attacks may also be triggered by the following factors:

Diet

  • Too much alcohol (especially red wine) and too much (or not enough) caffeine
  • Fasting or dieting
  • Foods such as aged cheese, soy, processed meats, chocolate, nuts, avocado, banana, citrus, onions, dairy, and anything fermented, smoked or pickled

Environment

  • Bright lights, loud noises, and strong odors or perfumes
  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Sudden changes in the weather
  • Allergic reactions

Activities and Emotions

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Lack of exercise
  • Motion from riding in trains, cars or planes
  • Shifts in stress levels, anxiety, fatigue, or excitement

Hormones

  • Menstrual cycle
  • Birth control pills

Until the 1980s, scientists believed that migraines were caused by changes in blood vessels in the brain. Today, research indicates that attacks actually begin in the brain itself, and involve various nerve pathways and chemicals. And while migraines can be set off by the triggers listed above, the exact chain of events remains unclear.

What Helps?There is no cure for migraines, but there are several ways to alleviate the symptoms. There are also many steps you can take to prevent them from coming on in the first place:

  • Keep a journal: Keep tabs on when migraines strike. This will to determine which combinations of factors bring them on. Note the medications you take. Track the timing of your menstrual cycle.
  • Develop healthy habits: Avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol, get regular exercise and keep regular sleep patterns. Learn how to relax and reduce stress.
  • Talk to your doctor: There have been many breakthroughs in treating and preventing migraines over the last few years. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to help you.

Since migraines are genetic, chances are good someone else in your family also suffers from them--talk to your relatives and share coping strategies. And consider joining a support group. You may meet other poets of pain ... and work together to write your own ode to healing.

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