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What is a migraine?

A migraine is a severe throbbing headache, it can last between 4 – 72 hours and leave the sufferer feeling tired and washed out. Migraines are quite common and can affect people of all ages. However, twice as many women suffer from migraines than men. There are 2 main types of migraine:

  1. Migraine without aura, also known as common migraine
  2. Migraine with aura, also known as classic migraine.

In most cases the aura refers to symptoms that affect the vision. Other symptoms of the aura stage include disturbances to hearing and senses, confusion and clumsiness. This stage usually lasts between 4 and 60 minutes. The migraine with aura affects approximately 15% of sufferers.

What causes a migraine?

The symptoms of a migraine attack are caused by changes in the blood vessels that surround the brain. However, it is still not known why this happens.

Approximately 70% of migraine sufferers have a family history of migraine.

What are the symptoms of a migraine?

A migraine is typically a throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head which builds up gradually. Other symptoms of a migraine may include any of the following:-

  • Sensitivity to light and sounds.
  • Vomiting.
  • Nausea.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Weakness.
  • Clumsiness.
  • Visual problems e.g. blurred vision, flashing lights or blind spots. This can be an early symptom of a migraine and is sometimes called the ‘Aura Stage’.

You may also find that movement, light and sound will make your migraine symptoms worse. Migraine attacks can come on with little warning. However, some people will experience signs of tiredness, depression or a craving for sugary foods.

As a headache can be associated with other conditions, you should seek a doctors advice if you have a severe headache, which lasts for more than 24 hours and is accompanied with a fever or a severe stiff neck. You should also contact your doctor if you have any unusual symptoms or are worried about any symptoms you might have.

How can I prevent getting a migraine?

There are a few things thought to trigger a migraine attack, they are known as trigger factors and include the following:-

  • Stress.
  • Missed meals.
  • Smoking.
  • Foods such as chocolate, cheese, sour cream, Chinese food and bananas.
  • Too much or too little sleep.
  • Drinks containing caffeine such as, coffee, tea and cola.
  • Alcohol, especially red wine.
  • The contraceptive pill.
  • Travel – high altitudes and jet lag.
  • Climate and environmental changes.
  • Hormonal changes in women – during pregnancy, periods or the menopause.

It can be difficult to figure out what triggers your migraine and it may not be one factor but a combination of factors. However, a trigger may only account for a small number of your migraine attacks. These trigger factors can vary from person to person.

How is a migraine diagnosed?

Your doctor will usually make a migraine diagnosis by talking to you about your symptoms and the progression of them. Your doctor may also carry out a physical examination.

Your doctor may suggest you keep a diary for 2-3 months and see if there is any pattern to your migraines. If there is a pattern this may indicate that a trigger is the cause of your migraine.

How is a migraine treated?

If you feel a migraine is about to start you should stop all activities, lie in a dark, quiet room and take paracetamol or aspirin. If you find this treatment is not effective to relieve your migraine symptoms your doctor can diagnose specific medications. These medications are most effective when taken at the start of an attack, especially if you experience sickness during your attacks.

If you suffer with migraines once or twice a week, your doctor may suggest you take prevention medication.

If a trigger is causing your migraine the best treatment is to avoid the trigger in the future.