Migraine headaches are common in our population, affecting about 17 percent of all women and 6 percent of men. These headaches are brought about by changes in a body chemical called serotonin, and high levels of it can cause blood vessels to shrink. The headaches are caused by low serotonin levels, which dilate blood vessels.
There are typically two types of migraines. One is associated with an aura that occurs before the headache and produces symptoms of bright flashing lights, blurry vision and unusual body sensations. Auras often last between 15 and 20 minutes and are usually (but not always) followed by a headache. The other type of migraine causes only the headache, without an aura.
The typical migraine headache can be quite severe and is often on only one side of the head, but is occasionally on both sides. The quality of pain can be either steady or throbbing. Other accompanying symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light.
These headaches may occur only once or twice a year or as often as daily. Migraines can last from several hours to more than three days.
Certain foods can trigger migraines, such as:
- aged cheese
- pickled foods
- alcoholic beverages
Other migraine triggers include:
- bright lights, loud noises
- fatigue and stress
- intense physical activity
- menstrual periods
- birth control pills
There are two types of migraine treatment. One type is the use of either over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), or with prescription migraine medication such as Imitrex.
Treatment should start as soon as the pain begins. A visit to the doctor may be necessary if these medications are not effective in relieving the pain.
The other type of treatment is using prescription medication to prevent the migraine attack. See your doctor about these various drugs and how they may help you.
Nontraditional therapies may also help:
- herbs — feverfew and butterbur
- minerals — magnesium sulfate supplements
- vitamins — riboflavin (vitamin B-2)
Symptoms of headaches more serious than migraines that require prompt medical attention are:
- A severe, sudden headache like a “thunderclap.”
- Headache with stiff neck, fever, rash or confusion.
- Headache after a head injury.
- New headache pain if you’re older than 50.