Not just a headache

If you've ever had one, you know why migraines are sometimes referred to as "suicide headaches" or "sick headaches." Often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, migraine headaches are more common than most people realize. It is estimated that approximately 23 million people a year are affected. The symptoms aren't always easy to identify, and some don't report them for fear being labeled with a psychiatric disorder. One of the most often-heard complaints of migraine sufferers is that their loved ones really don't understand the severity of the pain that accompanies a migraine. Yet, as painful as the condition can be, there are simple, effective treatments that really do help.

Detailed Description

The cause of migraines is not fully understood, although it is known that a migraine is a vascular headache, as opposed to a tension headache. The process usually begins with the constriction of blood vessels in the head and neck. Next, those same blood vessels dilate. The throbbing, intense pain of migraine is usually felt during the dilatation phase. Why the blood vessels constrict and then dilate, however, is the question.

There is evidence that a family history of the condition makes you more likely to experience migraines. Somewhere between 50% to 80% of sufferers have a close relative who also had migraines. Certain activities, foods, or emotional situations seem to act as triggers for people susceptible to migraines. In fact, foods are high on the list as familiar migraine triggers for many people.

While headaches might seem an adult problem, children and adolescents are not strangers to migraine headaches. In fact, most people who suffer from migraines have their first experience before age 20, and sometimes before age 10. The headaches typically continue into the 30s and 40s. Growing older has its advantages for those who suffer from migraines, as the attacks seem to lessen considerably in severity and frequency, or stop entirely after age 50. Until then, however, treatments are available that can usually help people avoid or stop most migraine episodes. For women, pregnancy often temporarily halts migraines, which may later stop completely with menopause.

There are also several types of migraine headaches, with the two main categories being "classic" and "common".

  • Classic migraine. This type begins with a "warning period," often called a "prodrome" or "aura." This aura is a brief (10-to 20-minute) period where any of the following symptoms may occur: changes in mood, lightheadedness, fatigue, loss of appetite often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, extra-sensitivity to light and sound, disruption of thought processes, blurring of vision or "seeing stars," flashes or zigzag patterns of light, or a prickling of the fingers spreading up the arm to the face.

    Most classic migraines occur on only one side of the head — sometimes over one temple or eye — with a deep, throbbing pain. However, in some cases, the pain migrates from side to side, and then sometimes affects both sides simultaneously. Some attacks are mild, some severe.

  • Common migraine. Approximately 75% to 80% of migraine attacks are of this type. A common migraine typically has no prodrome or warning signals. Not much difference exists in the pain intensity, but the pain sequence can be different than that of the classic migraine, and can occur frontally as well as in one, or both, sides of the head.

How Common Are Migraines?

This condition is quite prevalent in the United States. Though statistics on the condition vary, between 15% to 30% of adult women and 5% to 20% of adult men are affected by migraines. The sex ratio of this disease varies with the age group considered. On the whole, more women than men are affected. Migraines are seen in all age groups, but are most prevalent between ages 45 and 64.

Conventional Treatment

Goals of Treatment

There is no cure for migraine headaches, but for most people an effective treatment can be found, whether it be medication, behavioral and alternative-care treatment, or self-help. The goal is to prevent an attack or halt an oncoming attack. If a full-blown migraine headache is not stopped or prevented, then the goal is to relieve the pain.

Treatment Overview

Because each person's migraine headache can have a unique combination of triggers, possible treatments include a wide variety of therapies. Medications, diet, and relaxation techniques may be integrated, customizing the treatment plan to each individual case. A combination of health providers, including neurologists, neuropsychiatrists, and clinical psychologists may be consulted. There are many self-care measures that may be employed, enabling each person to take an active part in minimizing or eliminating the migraine attacks.

Drug Therapy

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Activity & Diet Recommendations

During an attack, a quiet, dark room with a place to lie down is the best place for a person with a migraine. Usually, normal activity can be resumed after the attack, but there may be a strong urge to sleep.

Food can play a key role in migraines. Almost all people who experience migraines are sensitive to alcohol, and many are also sensitive to chocolate and MSG. Reducing other foods may be considered on an individual basis by trial elimination. Suspect foods and ingredients include the following:

  • Alcohol in any form (red wine especially)
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Chocolate
  • Nitrates (in cured and processed meats)
  • Pickles and fermented foods
  • Aged cheeses
  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
  • Peanut butter and nuts

While caffeine is sometimes used as a migraine pain-relief component, it can also act as a trigger, so avoid caffeine or watch your intake carefully.

Possible Complications

There are a few (rare) possible complications produced by migraines, including the following:

  • Status migrainosis (a continual migraine headache)
  • Cerebral ischemic events (stroke)
  • Iatrogenic effects of treatment (treatment-induced complications)

Quality of Life

If you feel that your quality of life suffers greatly from the experience of migraine attacks, it may make sense to assess the nature of your migraine headaches more thoroughly. For instance, if you have not yet determined your specific triggers, try to do so. Everyone is different when it comes to migraine headaches, and what may work for someone else may not work for you. If there is a trigger activity or emotional situation that you can pinpoint, try to avoid it in the future.

If you do not experience them yourself, but are involved with someone who does have migraine headaches, take heed. A major complaint of those afflicted is that the pain is more severe than their families or friends realize, and they may feel isolated in their pain.


Though more women suffer from migraines than men, women get a reprieve with the onset of menopause, and usually with pregnancy as well. Headaches may also fluctuate in frequency and intensity during a menstrual cycle.

If you are planning a pregnancy, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding, you should inform your doctor. Many medications are not recommended during these circumstances.

Considerations for Children and Adolescents
Sometimes children are less able to articulate how a particular pain feels. It may also be difficult for them to point to the spot where they feel pain. Be prepared to ask your child particular questions to determine whether it is a migraine or another kind of headache. Apply cold packs during an attack. Have your child lie down in a dark, quiet room. After a bout with a migraine your child may need to rest a while longer. After resting, he or she should be able to enjoy normal activity.


Last updated 25 May 2012


  • Sick headache


Theoretical Causes

The cause of migraines has not yet been determined. Marked pulsing of vessels in the head has been noted for decades. The role of chemicals — including serotonin — which signal blood vessels and nerves continues to be investigated.

Risk Factors

A number of factors may put you at greater risk for developing this condition:

  • Family history of migraines
  • Being a woman
  • Age (between 45 and 64)
  • Cyclic vomiting, abdominal pain, and/or motion sickness during childhood
  • Smoking
  • Excessive drinking of alcohol

Symptoms & Diagnosis

If you display the following symptoms, you may be suffering from migraines.

Migraine headaches are preceded by the following:

  • Aura (changes in vision which include seeing geometric patterns, blind spots, and/or shimmering lights that may last several minutes or hours)
  • Changes in the way you perceive your environment
  • Sensations on the face or arms
  • Mood changes
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Yawning

Migraine headaches:

  • Usually appear one hour after the aura ends
  • Include pain (and possibly throbbing) in one or both temples
  • Are accompanied by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, extreme sensitivity to light, fear of sound, sore muscles, lightheadedness, and/or dizziness

After a migraine headache these symptoms may linger:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fatigue
  • Sore muscles

Conditions That May Be Mistaken for Migraines
A number of other conditions exhibit similar symptoms and may be confused with migraines. They include the following:

  • Tension-type or cluster headaches
  • Headaches caused by an underlying condition (including infection such as meningitis, stroke, temporal arteritis, brain aneurysm, and drug use
  • Psychiatric diseases

How Migraines Are Diagnosed

To determine if your symptoms are caused by a migraine, your physician will perform a complete physical examination and take a personal and medical history, asking about the location, severity, duration, and frequency of your headaches, as well as other symptoms you may have and medications you may be taking. If you have a family history of migraines, you may want to tell your physician.

Laboratory Tests
Laboratory tests used to see if the headache is actually a symptom of an underlying condition may include a complete blood count (CBC), serum chemistry profile, cerebral spinal fluid sample, and an ocular exam.

In some cases a sinus X-ray maybe be taken. When associated neurological impairment is severe or long-lasting, or migraine attacks are not typical, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans are used to rule out structural damage.

Self care & Prevention

Self-Care Measures

  • Chart your migraines. Because so many things can trigger them, every time you have a migraine, jot down the date, time, the foods and beverages you'd consumed that day, and any other factors you think might have contributed to your attack. If a pattern emerges, you can take steps to change it.
  • Try eating a low-fat diet. At Loma Linda University in Southern California, researchers asked 54 migraine sufferers to chart their attacks for a month. Then the participants were placed on a low-fat diet for two months. The group had significantly fewer migraines, and the ones that occurred were brief.

Preventing Migraines

Medicinal and non-medicinal prevention measures exist. Non-medicinal steps include the following:

  • Avoid your migraine triggers. The following list includes some of the more common ones:
    • Foods: cow's milk, meats (especially deli meats), wheat products, chocolate, eggs, citrus fruits, alcohol, pickled items, MSG, high-fat diets, and strong cheeses.
    • Drugs: Tagamet (for indigestion), birth control pills, and pain and asthma medications, among others.
    • Environment: hunger, fatigue, noise, and strong odors — among many other things — have been identified as potential triggers.
  • Try relaxation techniques. Enhancing resistance to headache through behavioral and relaxation techniques, psychotherapy and biofeedback.

Many medications — including anti-inflammatory drugs, beta-blockers, and tricyclic antidepressants — are also used to reduce migraine frequency.