At some point we all get headaches. And occasionally we all get a bad one. Sometimes it's severely bad. But, when it reaches that point, maybe it's not just a headache, after all. Perhaps you have nothing less than a full-blown migraine. Which means what, exactly? Well, that's a very good question. A great deal of misunderstanding surrounds the issue of migraine vs. headache. And even more misunderstanding surrounds the matter of what to do to prevent migraines, or lessen their effects when they strike out of the blue. Here's our top tips on combating those brain-thumping moments that no-one wants to experience but, unfortunately, so many do.
“If a man sits down to think, he is immediately asked if has a headache.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
What is a migraine?
Before you can begin to understand how to prevent, lessen or hopefully cure a migraine, it's most important of all to understand what it is. But to do that, we have to first take a look at what it's not: a regular headache. Too much booze on a Friday night, not enough water in your diet, and low blood sugar can all bring on headaches - and pretty intense ones, too. But, these can generally be lessened or cured relatively quickly by a solid meal, having a glass of water in between pints of beer or shots of vodka, and rest. If only it was that simple with migraines. Sadly, it isn't. At all.
Contrary to what a lot of people assume, migraines are not caused by the brain itself being sensitive to light, heat, alcohol, food or anything else that might spring to mind. Indeed, the biggest irony of all is that brain tissue is actually non-sensitive to pain. Instead, it's certain, critical areas around the brain itself that are the cause of all the problems, including the eyes, sinuses, muscles and arteries. These are the key trouble-spots where the problems often begin. And when they do, shutting them down is not the easiest thing in the world to do.
While you might think that having a thumping headache for a couple of hours is bad enough, how about extending that to a couple of days? Add to that a severe dose of nausea, throwing up, and strange visual distortions - including seeing eerie glows around both people and objects - and you have a classic case of migraine on your hands. Or your head.
Triggering an attack
So, it's pretty clear to you that after an episode or several, and maybe after a careful diagnosis from your GP too, you have unfortunately fallen victim to migraines. But even though you now know those areas around the brain that are the potential causes behind the attacks, several very important questions still remain: What are the actual triggering effects that set them off in the first place? How do you stop them? Can they even be stopped, or do you just have to wait them out? Well, that very much depends on the person: age, sex, and genetics can all be significant factors.
It's an unfortunate fact of life that more than sixty percent of migraine sufferers have a close blood relation who also suffers from such debilitating events. In other words, migraines can run in the family. There are other trends too. Deep and lasting states of depression have been associated with migraine onset. Anxiety - from minor to chronic and just about anywhere in between - is also a strongly suspected factor. As are stress and environmental issues, such as pollution. But there's another angle too: hormones.
Studies undertaken on children demonstrate that in pre-teens, boys report a slightly, but significantly, elevated percentage of migraines over girls. When raging hormones, chemical changes and mood swings all kick in as puberty strikes, however, the figures change noticeably and dramatically: it's the girls who become far more affected than the boys. And this trend continues into adulthood: current estimates suggest women are around three times more likely to suffer from migraines than men.
Curing the problem
Maybe it's your age, your fast-paced life, your genes, or just the result of bad luck that you're constantly plagued by migraines. But, whatever the reasons for them, it's time to try and do something to make them go away - temporarily or, hopefully, permanently. Despite what many people might assume, aspirin - which can work wonders in heart-related emergencies, such as quickly helping to break down blood clots - has not demonstrated much in the way of success when it comes to finding a cure for migraines. Or, more correctly, on its own it hasn't. Taken with a small amount of caffeine, however, aspirin has achieved noticeable success. And there's more.
Some migraine sufferers swear by codeine - an opiate that has a provable success rate in lessening the effects of sensitivity. And sensitivity to sound, light, and even smell, are key issues known to have triggered migraine attacks.
Most people, quite understandably, would probably find the idea of surgery to combat migraines daunting and even frightening. But, if nothing else works, well, an operation may do the trick. Removing muscle and cauterizing vessels - pain sensitive areas that play significant roles in the onset and development of migraines - has helped more than a few sufferers.
Then there are the far more down to earth methods: since migraines can be caused by bright light, make sure the bedroom lights are off when you go to bed. And don't sleep in too long. Try giving up chocolate - a long-suspected kick-starter of migraines. And avoid red wine, which is a definite no-go area for many.
The alternative angles
While conventional treatment for migraines will, and should, always play a role in lessening the effects of migraine, more and more sufferers are turning to alternative forms of treatment. Acupuncture - the insertion of needles into the skin at certain points known in Chinese medicine as meridians - has been shown to help. Vitamin B12 and Magnesium have also lessened symptoms for some sufferers. And then there are the large-leaved plants known as Butterburs. Or, rather, it's the roots of the Butterburs that have helped many. They contain a chemical called Petasin, which has had recorded and notable success when it comes to the treatment of migraines. So, don't give up on the conventional approach, but ask your GP what he or she thinks about exploring outside of the box.