Preventing and managing migraines

What is a migraine?

A migraine is an intense, throbbing - and often, debilitating - headache. A migraine is usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Some sufferers experience an aura, a type of early warning that signals a migraine is coming. With visual auras, an individual may see flashing lights or zigzag lines, or experience blind spots or a temporary loss of vision. Migraine sufferers also may experience sensory auras, marked by tingling or numbness that travels along your arm and sometimes, into your face. Occasionally, someone with an aura may experience speech or language difficulties.

Who is at risk?

Roughly 30 million men and women in the United States suffer with migraines. They most commonly occur between the ages of 35 and 55. Women are three times more likely to suffer a migraine than men. More than 70 percent of those who suffer with migraine have a family history of migraine. A staggering 91 percent report missing work or not being able to function normally in their lives while in the midst of a migraine attack.

What are the symptoms?

In the days leading up to a migraine, you may experience feelings of depression or irritability, neck stiffness, or food cravings.

Closer to the start of the migraine, you may experience an aura, which can include:

  • Vision loss
  • Seeing bright lights or spots
  • Tingling in your arm or leg

During a migraine, which can last between four and 72 hours, it is normal to experience:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Throbbing pain, usually on one side of your head
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light, sound and smell

Can you prevent migraines?

By paying attention to potential triggers, you can help identify what might set off a migraine. Migraines are thought to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors, including an imbalance in the chemicals in your brain. Following are examples of environmental triggers:

  • Hormonal changes (in women)
  • Food and drink, including alcohol, aged cheeses, chocolate and the artificial sweetener aspartame
  • Too much caffeine
  • Skipping meals
  • Getting too much or too little sleep
  • Stress
  • Bright lights
  • Unpleasant, pungent odors
  • Intense physical exertion
  • Changes in weather, such as an extreme spike in heat or barometric pressure

Some prescription medications can be taken frequently - in some cases, daily - to help prevent or lessen the intensity of a migraine. Your health care provider can help you determine if this option is right for you.

Here are a few tips for preventing the onset of a migraine:

  • Refill your prescription medication on time. Treating a migraine in its early stages is the most effective.
  • Get rest. Too much or too little sleep can trigger a migraine, so find the amount that’s right for you.
  • Wear sunglasses or dark lenses when exposed to bright light, especially if light is one of your triggers.
  • Learn breathing and relaxation techniques if stress is one of your triggers.

How to manage migraine pain

After the onset of a migraine, there are things you can do to lessen your discomfort, such as:

  • Lie down in a quiet, dark room
  • Avoid bright lights and loud noises
  • Avoid activities that require exertion

Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may help with mild migraines. Prescription medications known as triptans can help relieve pain, nausea and light and sound sensitivity, but they aren't for everyone. Prescription anti-nausea medications also can be helpful. Opiates are used as a last resort to treat migraine pain.

Consider physical or occupational therapy

Your headaches may be related to stress and muscle tension. If so, physical or occupational therapy may help. Ask your health care provider about physical therapy if:

  • You get headaches when you are stressed or tense
  • You have neck and spine issues
  • Your headaches continue with the same intensity or frequency, or get worse, despite taking medication

If migraines interfere with your daily life, don’t wait until the next one strikes. Make an appointment to see your health care provider to discuss options for preventing or treating your migraines. Don’t let migraine pain keep you down.