Migraines are more than just a ‘bad headache’. For millions of people, the condition can be debilitating. While the true causes are largely unknown, we hear from the experts who explain the common triggers and symptoms, including some information on how to differentiate a migraine from a headache…
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, a huge six million people suffer from migraines in the UK alone. Migraines are also the sixth most disabling illness in the world, with 90% of sufferers being unable to work or function normally when a migraine strikes. the condition is more common in women, with around 5–25% of women suffering, compared to 2–10% of men.
What causes a migraine?
Despite the huge number of people suffering from migraines, the true cause is still not entirely clear. However, Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer explains: ‘this complex condition is certainly not just a vascular headache but more a disorder of the nervous system function which causes inflammatory changes in pain-sensitive parts of the brain.’
Research has also shown that migraines often run in families, so it is thought that the condition may be caused by a genetic disposition. Alongside genes, certain environmental factors can also increase the risk of developing migraines, including:
- poor sleep
- hormonal changes (for example, childbirth or menopause)
- certain foods and drink
- depleted vitamin and mineral levels
- too much screen time
- poor posture
Our modern lifestyles could be to blame. Dr Xandra Middleton, co-founder of adio Health, explains: ‘Technology plays a part in the causes of migraines. These days, the joints and muscles of our neck and upper back are put under constant, unnatural pressure when we are always looking down to check our phone or tablet.’
What are the symptoms of a migraine?
Many migraine sufferers report a wide range of different symptoms. Some people may experience all of these, while others might only deal with one or two. The symptoms of migraines can include:
- Severe, throbbing headache
- Headache on one side of the head
- Pain in the face/behind the eyes
- Visual disturbances
- Tingling or numbness in the face
- Extreme sensitivity to light, sounds and touch
There are different types of migraine, and a sufferer may only ever experience one, or each attack may be different from the next. According to the NHS, there are three main types of migraine:
- Migraine with aura – where there are specific warning signs just before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
- Migraine without aura – the most common type, where the migraine happens without the specific warning signs
- A migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop
Migraine attacks vary in length and frequency from one person to the next. Some people may experience migraines several times a week, while others go years without having an attack. The migraine itself can last anywhere between 4 and 72 hours.
What’s the difference between a migraine and a headache?
While many people mistakenly believe a migraine to just be another word for a bad headache, the two conditions are very different. As Suzie Sawyer outlined above, a migraine is a disorder of the nervous system function, while a headache only affects the vascular system. Unlike headaches, which are a common symptom caused by a range of factors, migraine is a chronic disease.
In terms of getting a diagnosis for migraines, this is easier said than done. The experts at the Migraine Research Foundation explain: ‘more than half of all migraine sufferers are never diagnosed. Migraine is a diagnosis of exclusion – it’s diagnosed by a process of elimination because there’s not yet a test or biomarker to show it’s present. Health professionals diagnose migraine by analyzing the symptoms, reviewing family history, conducting medical tests, and eliminating other possible causes of the headache.’
Diagnosing migraine: keep track of your symptoms
If you’re looking to get a migraine diagnosis, it’s important to keep track of your symptoms. This will speed up the process and help your medical professional to get you the right support.
Dr Steve Allder, consultant neurologist at Re:Cognition Health suggests recording the following things when keeping a symptom diary for migraines:
- Pain intensity (1-10)
- Location of pain
- Weather (e.g. humidity, cold or hot temperatures, wind changes in the weather)
- Type of pain
- Duration – number of hours/days
- Symptoms and changes in symptoms throughout the period (vomiting, noise/light sensitivity, restricted vision ability to perform tasks e.g. not able to walk, work, restricted vision etc.)
- Menstrual cycle (if applicable)
Can migraines be treated?
There is currently no complete ‘cure’ for migraines. However, there are a number of treatment options that can offer relief. This includes over-the-counter painkillers, prescription medication, plus simple lifestyle and diet changes.
This week, we’ll be sharing lots of expert advice on the different treatment options available – including some new alternative health practices – so, stay tuned!