If you’ve never experienced a migraine before, you might not know that much about them.
In fact, you probably think that they’re just a ‘bad headache’, as many people do.
But for millions of sufferers across the UK, they’re much more than that. Migraines aren’t only painful and upsetting — they can sometimes be debilitating and life-altering.
In this beginner’s guide to migraines, we’ll be covering everything you need to know about the condition: from symptoms to triggers and treatments. Read on to find out more:
What are migraines?
Migraine is a neurological condition characterised by severe and intense headaches, as well as dizziness, nausea, and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraine is a very common health condition — affecting around one in every five women and around one in every 15 men. Most people who suffer from migraines will begin to experience them in early adulthood. Migraines normally improve gradually as people get older.
There are two main types of migraine:
- Migraine with aura (previously known as classic migraines): with this type of migraine, a sufferer will experience specific warning signs — such as seeing flashing lights — just before the attack begins
- Migraine without aura (previously known as common migraines): this is the most prevalent type of migraine, where the migraine happens without any specific warning signs
Migraine severity and frequency can vary hugely from individual to individual. Some people may only have a migraine occasionally, and it could be a case of years passing between each one. For others, migraines can occur several times a week.
Migraine symptoms: what to look out for
A migraine feels very different from a general tension headache; it is usually localised, manifesting as severe pain and a throbbing sensation on one side of the head. It can be accompanied by a range of different symptoms, which we have listed below.
If you are unsure what to look out for, these are the most common symptoms and signs of a migraine:
- Painful and intense headache (this is the main symptom)
- Light sensitivity
- Sound sensitivity
- Difficulty speaking clearly
- A prickling or tingling sensation in your face, arms or legs
- Seeing flashing lights, shapes, or bright spots
- Temporary vision loss
- Fatigue or low energy
This list isn’t exhaustive, and other symptoms may occur.
Not everyone who suffers from migraines will experience the same thing — migraines can vary enormously between individuals. Some people may have short-lived, mild migraines; others experience severe, debilitating pain that lasts for days at a time and leaves them bedridden.
Migraine triggers and causes
The exact cause of migraines is unknown. However, they’re thought to be caused by abnormal brain activity which changes the chemicals, nerve signals and blood vessels within the brain.
Although researchers haven’t identified a definitive cause for migraines, it is generally thought that genetics is a contributing factor; many people who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition.
As for triggers, some migraine suffers will notice that certain things will trigger an attack (although some will not notice any pattern around their migraines).
Here are some common migraine triggers:
- Certain foods or drinks such as chocolate, caffeine and certain cheeses
- Hormonal changes — some women notice an increase in migraines around the time that they start their period
- Stress or emotional distress such as anxiety, tension or depression
- Tiredness and other similar physical factors like poor sleep quality or jet lag
If you get migraines, it is a good idea to keep a diary to try and identify a consistent trigger.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for migraines. However, there are a number of treatments are available to help ease painful symptoms.
Many people use over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin to alleviate migraine pain.
If these normal painkillers don’t help to relieve your migraine symptoms, then your GP may suggest a type of prescription medication called a ‘triptan’. Triptans stabilise the brain chemicals and cause the blood vessels in the brain to contract, which helps to reduce the symptoms of a migraine attack.
Sumatriptan is one of the most popular triptan medications available due to its speed and effectiveness at providing migraine relief (check out this post to find everything you need to know before using the migraine medication). Sumatriptan is a tablet, but triptans are available as injections and nasal sprays too.
If you suffer from nausea and vomiting as part of your migraine attacks, then your GP may also prescribe anti-sickness medicines.
If you find that conventional medicines don’t work for you, you can also try alternative treatments such as acupuncture.
Above is a brief beginner’s guide to migraines, including symptoms, triggers and treatments. If you think you might be suffering from migraines and you need medical assistance, you should speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
Dr Don Grant (MB, ChB, DRCOG, MRCGP, Dip.orth.med) is the clinical lead at The Independent Pharmacy, one of the UK’s leading independent online pharmacies. For more healthcare and treatment advice, visit their website.