Migraines are the third-most common illness in the world, affecting more than 39 million people in the United States, or 12 percent of the population. Despite the prevalence of migraines, many people don’t realize what they are or how to treat them. In recognition of Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, we’ve outlined how to spot a migraine, as well as treatment and tips for living with this chronic condition.
Signs & Symptoms of Migraines
Head pain is not the sole symptom of a migraine, although the most common symptom is a severe, reoccurring throbbing on at least one side of the head. Other common symptoms include visual disturbances (often called auras), nausea, vomiting, dizziness, tingling or numbness, as well as extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell. Migraine sufferers often experience different degrees of attacks, and can experience one or more migraine symptoms with each occurrence, which can last anywhere from four hours to 72 hours.
Diagnosing & Treating Migraines
More than half of migraine sufferers are never diagnosed. Because there is no biomarker or conclusive test for migraine diagnosis, migraines are often diagnosed by a process of elimination. Doctors will often analyze symptoms, assess family history and run tests to eliminate other possible causes of the migraine symptoms.
Migraines are complicated to treat because they are believed to be brought on by both environmental and genetic components. Three main approaches to migraine treatment exist today:
- Acute treatment*: Used to combat a migraine attack after its onset, acute treatment includes over-the-counter and prescription medication. Read a comprehensive overview of types of acute treatment.
- Preventive treatment*: Preventive treatment is used to reduce the number of migraine attacks, lessen pain intensity and prevent future attacks. This type of treatment can include oral medication or injections.
- Complementary treatment*: This type of treatment is inclusive of non-drug approaches to migraine prevention, including diet change, acupuncture and massage.
*It’s important to consult with your doctor before beginning treatment of any kind.
Living with Migraines
The World Health Organization identifies migraine headaches as one of the top 10 most disabling illnesses, which costs the United States more than $20 billion each year in doctor visits and medication, in addition to absenteeism and lost productivity resulting from employees missing work due to migraines. Although the below tips are not a substitute for medical treatment or advice from a physician, here are some tips for preventing the onset of migraines and lessening their intensity:
- Hydrate: According to research, dehydration can cause blood volume to drop, resulting in less blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Research suggests that a loss of electrolytes can also cause nerves in the brain to generate pain signals.
- Avoid common triggers: Triggers known to exacerbate migraine headaches include chocolate, cheese, dairy, baked goods, nuts, onions, peanut butter and processed or marinated foods. Environmental triggers can include smoke, odors, bright lights, stress, lack of sleep, food allergies or poor eating habits.
- Cease activity and rest: If you are beginning to experience migraine symptoms – whether pain or visual symptoms – it’s important to rest. Close your eyes or use a cold compress to block out potentially triggering light. If you’re driving at the onset of a migraine, pull over.