Migraines aren't your average, run-of-the-mill headaches. When you have a migraine, it feels like your head is throbbing, every light is glaring, and all you want to do is lie down in a dark room. Let's talk about migraines.
We know that migraines are more common in women than in men. But what exactly triggers these severe headaches is less clear, and it's different in different people. For some people the trigger is stress. For others, it's strong odors like perfumes. Changing hormones around the time of a woman's menstrual period can set off a migraine. So can certain foods like chocolate, cured meats, red wine, and aged cheese.
Doctors believe that whatever triggers a migraine sets off a chain of abnormal activities in brain chemicals and nerves. These activities affect the flow of blood through the brain.
A migraine feels different than a regular headache. For one thing, it often comes with a warning. Some people get a sign that their migraine is coming, called an aura. About 10 to 15 minutes before the actual headache hits, their vision gets blurry or narrowed, and they may see stars or zigzag lines.
A migraine feels like a throbbing or pounding pain that tends to be worse on one side of the head. You may also have symptoms like nausea, vomiting, numbness, chills, and sensitivity to light or sound.
A migraine can typically last anywhere from 6 hours to 2 days. When it's over, people get what's described as a "hangover," in which they feel tired and can't think clearly.
If you're plagued by migraines, your doctor will help you figure out the cause. You may need to have a brain scan such as an MRI or CT, especially if you have other symptoms like memory problems or weakness with your migraines.
So, what can be done to treat migraines? Doctors use a few different types of medicines to prevent and treat migraines. You can take antidepressants, blood pressure medicines, or seizure medicines every day to prevent migraines from starting. Some people have great success preventing migraines using biofeedback devices or hypnosis. Once you do get a migraine, you can take medicines right away to stop it. Triptans such as Imitrex and Maxalt are the most commonly prescribed medicines for stopping a migraine. Depending on your migraine symptoms and how bad they are, your doctor may also recommend a pain reliever such as ibuprofen, or a nausea medicine.
To prevent migraines, you also need to avoid your triggers, but first you need to identify what they are. Your doctor may recommend keeping a headache diary, in which you write down when your headaches occur and what you were eating or doing when you got a migraine.
Take care of yourself when you have a migraine. If you only get them occasionally, there's probably no cause for worry. But if you get migraines often, and they're interfering with your life or they're getting worse, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent and treat them.
Review Date: 10/25/2011
Reviewed By: Alan Greene, MD, Author and Practicing Pediatrician; also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.