SEATTLE — Migraines are more than just a bad headache. They are recurrent, throbbing headaches that typically last several hours and can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, disturbed vision, dizziness, light flashes, pins and needles or numbness.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world and tend to peak between the ages of 30 and 39. 15% of Americans experiencing them, and Women are 3x more likely to experience a migraine than men.

“Generally deep within our brain we have a ‘headache command center’ that sends out different messages to different parts of your brain and activates your brain,” says Virginia Mason’s Sarah Hermanson, ARNP Neurology, “An analogy I use a lot Is a stormy ocean, where the waves are crashing about. Everything is overactive and oversensitive.”

Rest, turning off the lights, using an ice pack and drinking small amounts of caffeine may help alleviate migraine symptoms, but for those suffering from repeat migraines, advanced relaxation techniques and preventative therapy measures may help patients live healthier lives.

If you suffer from four or more debilitating attacks a month, attacks last more than 12 hours, pain-relieving medications aren't helping, signs and symptoms include a prolonged aura or numbness and weakness then you may be a candidate for preventative therapy.

"It's a really tricky thing to be stressed out about getting a migrine, and have to calm yourself down."  -- Patient Elliat Graney Saucke
"It's a really tricky thing to be stressed out about getting a migrine, and have to calm yourself down."  -- Patient Elliat Graney Saucke 

Elliat Graney Saucke started experiencing migraines in her mid-twenties. “I would have headaches regularly and just take ibuprophen and they just continued to get more severe.”

Nausea was one of her main side effects, “It’s challenging and frustrating because you’re trying to do everything you can and sometimes your body just needs extra support.”

Preventative therapy might include medications or pain relieving medications in order to reduce the frequency/severity, along with lifestyle changes to avoid migraine triggers. Your neurologist may recommend Blood tests, Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or Computerized tomography (CT) scans to rule out other serious health conditions.

Elliat started seeing Sarah at Virginia Mason's Neuroscience Institute and was diagnosed with chronic migraines. She has seen a success in the frequency and severity of her migraines as a result of the individualized treatment plan Sarah helped create.

To make it work, Elliat has had to really engage with lifestyle changes and knows she has to plan ahead and take care of herself. “Realizing that if I’m sleep deprived, and having a really stressful work situation and I have to get up and do a lot of things … I’m probably going to get a migraine.”

“Stress is a factor, but it’s not the cause of your migraines,” says Sarah, “Factors like lack of sleep or increased stress or being dehydrated can rock the boat if you have sensitivity and tip you into a migraine.” They are contributors to, but not the cause of the headache. A migraine is a neurological response, not an emotional one.

Different people have different triggers, and in some case it’s not obvious. “Sometimes I want to give people permission to not search for a trigger, because that can generate more stress.”

There’s no simple solutions for coping with migraines, everyone is different. “It’s like shoe shopping, you’ve got to trial and error a lot of things.”

There’s a lot of education involved, like understanding the importance of sleep in overall brain function and total health and eating consistent meals and snacks to keep your blood sugar regulated throughout the day.

Some people try everything and it’s not enough. Sarah says not to lose hope, there’s a lot of preventative breakthroughs emerging.

“The main thing I want people to know in terms of prevention,” she says, “Is there is many options.” Acupuncture, natural vitamins and supplements, prescription medications, injections, there’s a whole array. You just have to find what works for you.

If you’d like to make an appointment for an evaluation or to receive treatment, visit Virginia Mason's Neuroscience Institute

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