Those of us who are unlucky enough to be plagued by migraines know the special kind of pain that can come from the faintest sound, dimmest light or even the softest pillow. To say a migraine is debilitating is an understatement. The excruciating pain it brings can leave you incapacitated. None of us can afford to have our days to be hijacked by the mother of all headaches. So what can you do about it? Matthew Bean, MD,primary care physician at HonorHealth Medical Group Cave Creek, can help you better understand migraines, common triggers and ways to zero in on the root of the problem.
1. Migraines vs. Headaches: How can you tell the difference?
According to Dr. Bean, a typical headache generally comes with pain on both sides of the head, striking out of the blue and lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Migraines, however, are a whole different ballgame. They often start with a subtle pounding on one side of the head that gradually builds in pain and intensity, usually worsening with exposure to light and sound and sometimes being accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Migraines also last significantly longer, spanning anywhere from four hours to three or more days.
2. Common Causes
Like many maladies, migraines appear to have multiple causes and, in some cases, may even be preceded by visual cues.
Dr. Bean cites the most common migraine triggers as:
- Lack of sleep.
- Caffeine, including chocolate.
- Certain foods and/or smells.
- Skipping meals.
- Weather changes.
Obviously one of these triggers only applies to women, which may explain why women are more likely to experience migraines. In total, about 12 percent of the general population is afflicted. There also is evidence to suggest that migraines may be hereditary. Thanks, mom!
So, what about those visual cues?
Dr. Bean says patients sometimes report seeing an aura or visual emanation before or at onset of a migraine. Some people report this aura as a sort of fuzzy white light. While 75 percent of migraine sufferers do not have any sort of aura, a quarter of us do. The implications of this strange phenomenon are somewhat hazy, but there appears to be a correlation between aura-accompanied migraines and increased risk of stroke.
3. Figuring out Your Triggers
Keeping what Dr. Bean calls a headache diary is one of the best ways to narrow the list of triggers and, hopefully, pinpoint the source your migraines. Used to document the environment, circumstances leading up to, and even the food and beverages consumed prior to onset, the diary can give your doctor invaluable insight.
4. Migraine treatment: From lifestyle changes to medication cocktails.
Subscribing to the philosophy that prevention is the best medicine, doctors say it's best to identify your personal migraine triggers and make lifestyle adjustments as needed. But when prevention isn't possible, medication can help. In fact, there is an entire class of medications dedicated to migraine treatment known as triptans. The trick, however, is balancing medication use, not taking more than is needed or finding the right "medication cocktail" for you.
Proceed with caution though. Using medication too often to treat migraines can actually be counterproductive, leading to medication overuse headaches. Especially if you're sensitive to medication, go with the prevention method. Take a cue from your 11-year-old self and keep a diary. Only this time, you'll be documenting migraine triggers rather than pre-teen crushes.
Dr. Bean, a former aerospace engineer, knew his real dream was to be a doctor. He's always been an athlete and was injured at a young age. His work toward recovery with different doctors is what drives his passion for medicine and injury prevention. His background helps him understand the nature of injuries intuitively and he wants to help people make changes like exercising more, losing weight or overcoming social anxiety.