A migraine is more than just a headache. An attack is normally accompanied by symptoms of nausea or vomiting, as well as oversensitivity to light, noise, movement or smell. It typically lasts for hours or even days.
Migraine headaches can be “severely debilitating and distressing for sufferers”, Dr Nitin Shori, medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service, tells HuffPost UK.
Here, we spoke to experts about what causes migraines and, most importantly, how to get rid of them.
What causes them?
“The exact causes of a migraine aren’t clear but it is thought that they occur as a result of temporary chemical changes in the nerves and blood vessels within the brain,” says Dr Shori.
“Triggers are thought to include certain food and drink, tiredness and stress.
“Women starting their period can also be more susceptible to migraines.”
One in five females will suffer from a migraine attack compared to one in 15 males. It is thought this is due to hormonal changes.
According to The National Migraine Centre, people who are prone to attacks should try to avoid eating irregular meals or skipping them entirely.
“People with migraine should take a fibre-containing breakfast within an hour of getting up, before leaving home for work or school,” they advise.
“Try to have a regular body clock, with the same or similar time for sleep and for getting up every day. Avoid shift work, or try to stay on the same shift all the time.”
Caffeine, alcohol and mild dehydration can also trigger migraines.
It is thought that keeping fit can make you more resistant to attacks, however for some, vigorous exercise can also trigger them.
Symptoms of migraine
With an acute migraine attack, there are usually four stages - however not all patients will go through each and every stage.
The first stage is called ‘prodrome’. This is where the patient’s mood changes hours or days before the headache begins.
The next stage, called ‘aura’, usually happens just before the headache. Each aura symptom lasts up to an hour and will typically affect vision. It can also cause numbness, dizziness, paralysis, speech difficulty, memory loss or collapse.
According to The National Migraine Centre, visual aura normally begins off-centre, asymmetrically in both eyes and gradually enlarges with blackness, zigzags, lights or patterns which can affect half or all of a person’s vision.
The third stage of acute migraine is head pain or a thumping, pulsing pressure. This pain can affect any part of the head, including the face or neck, and can last for hours or days at a time.
During the final stage, called ‘recovery’, you will feel generally unwell. This can last for a day or two.
How can it be treated?
“There is no cure for migraine but there are over-the-counter treatments available that can help alleviate symptoms,” says Dr Shori.
“These include common painkillers including paracetamol and ibuprofen.
“Some sufferers also find it helpful to use anti-emetic treatments which can help to reduce nausea and vomiting, while drugs called triptans can help by tackling the chemical changes thought to trigger migraines.”
If you suffer with migraine attacks, it can sometimes help to lie in a quiet and darkened room until the symptoms have passed.
Dr Shori also advises avoiding foods that have previously triggered an attack.
“If you suffer very frequent migraines, your doctor may consider preventative treatments such as beta blockers,” he adds.
The National Migraine Centre recommends trying either magnesium, riboflavin or coenzyme Q10 supplements. However they note that research into whether these natural remedies work is limited.