Migraine: Overview and Facts

By Lisa Cantkier

Migraine: Overview and Facts

If you suffer from migraine headaches, you’re not alone. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, nearly one in four U.S. households includes someone who develops migraines.

Migraines affect more than 12 percent of the population, including children — more than diabetes, epilepsy, and asthma combined. And nearly half of all people who have migraines are never diagnosed.

A migraine is not a symptom, it is a syndrome — a collection of symptoms that arise from a common cause. A migraine headache can feel like intense throbbing or pulsing in one area of the head and commonly is accompanied by light or sound sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting.

The Migraine Research Foundation states that although most sufferers experience attacks once or twice a month, 14 million people in the U.S. have chronic daily headaches and attacks at least 15 days per month. Migraine attacks can cause a person to feel extreme pain that lasts from hours to days. Although medications can reduce the severity and frequency, it’s important to find the right medicines and make proper home care and lifestyle choices.


Migraine causes

Unfortunately, the causes of migraines are not well understood. A migraine is a complicated condition involving the brain and the blood vessels around the brain and head. The brain may become hyperactive in response to certain environmental triggers, such as light or odor. This initiates chemical changes that irritate the pain-sensing nerves around your head and cause blood vessels to expand and leak chemicals. It can become a vicious cycle.

Genetic makeup also may be a contributing factor. For example, the trigeminal nerve is one of the body’s major pain pathways. The way in which it communicates with the brain when certain changes occur may lead to migraines.

Another possible cause may be imbalances in brain chemistry. Researchers believe this can include imbalances to the chemical neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate pain in the nervous system. Serotonin levels have been shown to decrease during migraine attacks. This change in the brain may cause the trigeminal system to release neuropeptides, which travel to the brain’s outer covering (the meninges), causing migraine pain.


Migraine triggers

“I can feel my migraines coming the day before,” said Felicia, 24. ”I have lots of triggers, like bright lights, perfumes, and strong scents like cleaning agents. The weather and barometric pressure also are triggers for me. I need to wear sunglasses on foggy days.”

Many things can trigger migraines. To narrow yours down, keep a journal or record of any possible triggers you may have experienced prior to your migraines. Then it’s possible to look for patterns later in your notes.

Here are common migraine triggers:

Beverages: Alcohol, particularly wine, and drinks high in caffeine.

Environmental changes: Changes to the weather or barometric pressure.

Foods: Aged cheeses and foods high in salt content, or skipping meals or fasting.

Food additives: Artificial sweeteners and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common preservative in foods.

Hormonal changes (in women): The most common trigger. Two-thirds of women who have migraines get them only around the time of menstruation. Migraines in women usually are worse around puberty and often disappear around menopause. Changes in estrogen levels seem to trigger headaches in many women. Other women develop migraines during pregnancy.

Hormonal medications: Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy (HRP) have been found to worsen migraines, but some women find their migraines occur less often when they take these medications.

Physical factors: Intense physical activities, including sexual activity.

Sensory stimuli: Being in the sun, bright lights, loud sounds and unusual smells, such as perfume, paint fumes, secondhand smoke, and chemicals odors.

Sleep: Any changes in your wake-sleep pattern, such as changing time zones and jet lag, missing sleep or getting too much sleep.

Stress: Stressful situations and life events.


Risk factors

Factors that put you at a greater risk of developing migraines include:

Age: Migraines can start at any age; however, for most people migraines start during adolescence.

Family history: Up to 90 percent of people who get migraines have a family history of them. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, if one parent has migraines, there is a 40 percent chance a child will get them. If both parents have them, the chance rises to 90 percent.

Gender: Women are three times more likely to have migraines than men. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, about 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men in the U.S. have migraines. A woman with migraines may find headaches begin just before or shortly after the onset of menstruation. Generally they tend to improve after menopause.

Last Reviewed 3/30/2016

  • Page 1 of 1
  • 1

Lisa Cantkier, CHN is a certified holistic nutritionist and a health and wellness editor.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

Get the latest news and tips from Pain-Free Living, delivered to your inbox twice a month!

Sign Up For Our E-Newsletter

We're on Facebook

Become a Fan

We're on Twitter

Follow Us on Twitter