What Do We Mean by a Migraine Headache?

By: Donald Saunders

The most common symptom of a migraine headache is an acute throbbing pain which is normally located on just one side of the head near to the area of the temple. Unlike normal headaches, migraines are also often accompanied by other symptoms which include sensitivity to light and noise, nausea and sometimes vomiting.

Migraines are fairly common and affect about 10% of the population of the United States, or in excess of 28 million Americans. They are also far more commonly seen in women than in men (about three times as many women suffer from migraine) and can also be found occasionally in children.

Although migraines are so common and often very painful with attacks lasting anywhere from a few hours to two or three days, only about 50% of all sufferers ever consult their physician and the remainder choose to suffer in silence.

It had long been thought these headaches were caused by a of dilation of the blood vessels in the head but, although there is no general consensus, medical opinion seems to be moving away from this theory in favor of a genetic cause for this condition. Current thinking is that the condition results from the interaction of certain brain chemicals, such as serotonin, with the nerve cells. At this time however the truth is that we really do not know what cause migraines.

There are in fact two different forms of the condition, the first of which is referred to as 'classical migraine', which is characterized by an associated 'aura'. In this case the term 'aura' is used to refer to visual light effects which are experienced immediately prior to the onset of a headache including such things as bright light spots and flashing lights. In a few people a complete loss of vision can be experienced for a few minutes before the arrival of the headache.

The second form of the condition is simply a migraine without the prior symptoms of an 'aura'.

Just as we do not really know what causes a migraine, so too we have very little idea about just what triggers an attack, although there are a number of factors which do seem likely to trigger an attack in sufferers. For example, getting too much sleep appears to be one factor, as does skipping meals or eating certain types of food like cheese.

Hormonal factors are also thought to influence both the onset and severity of attacks and one piece of evidence for this is the higher incidence of migraines among women. This in part is thought to be because estrogen affects the blood vessels and it has been noted in some studies that there is a connection between the contraceptive pill (which contains estrogen) and migraine headaches.

Just to confuse matters however, studies have also shown that simple everyday activities like walking up stairs can trigger an attack, as can exposure to heat or cold, loud noises, flashing lights and even stress.

Happily, there are several medical treatments available today, although no single treatment has proved to be really effective in all cases. Over-the-counter medications are however rarely effective and, if you suffer from migraines, you are best advised to seek the help of your physician in finding a solution which works for you.

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