Migraine is the most common form of disabling headache. Learn what causes a migraine and how to properly treat and prevent migraines.
What Is Migraine?
A migraine is usually a moderate or severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on 1 side of the head. There are several types of migraine, including:
- 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
- migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop
What Causes Migraines?
Some people find migraine attacks are associated with certain triggers, which can include:
- starting their period
- certain foods or drinks
Are migraines more common in women than men?
About three out of four people who have migraines are women. Migraines are most common in women between the ages of 20 and 45. At this time of life women often have more job, family, and social duties. Women tend to report more painful and longer lasting headaches and more symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. All these factors make it hard for a woman to fulfill her roles at work and at home when migraine strikes.
Start With the Basics
Doubling down on good health habits helps prevent some migraines. Don't skip meals. Drink plenty of water. Be consistent about coffee, and you may not have to give it up. Sleep for 7 to 8 hours every night; you're more likely to have a migraine with less than 6 hours or more than 9. Regular exercise, especially cardio, will boost endorphins. Ease into your workouts with a warmup and end with a cool-down.
Having more of these in your diet may help prevent migraines:
- Magnesium, a mineral in greens, grains, nuts, and seeds
- CoQ10, an antioxidant in fatty fish and whole grains
- Riboflavin, a B vitamin in milk and beef
- Melatonin, a brain hormone that regulates sleep, in many plant-based foods like tomatoes, olives, walnuts, barley, and rice
Monitor and Manage Stress
Write down your stress level at the end of each day. When it's higher than normal (a sign that a migraine is likely), ask your doctor if it’s a good idea to take your migraine medication. This may help you avoid getting one. Yoga is great for easing stress. If you do it regularly, like 5 times a week, you may also get fewer migraines.
Migraine Prevention Medication
If you don’t respond to other treatments and you have more than 4 migraine days a month, your doctor may suggest preventive medicines. You can take these regularly to reduce the severity or frequency of the headaches. These include seizure medicines, blood pressure medicines (like beta blockers and calcium channel blockers), and some antidepressants.
Be Aware of Your Menstrual Cycle
For many women, migraines follow a monthly pattern, often in the stretch before and during each period. Taking your preventive medication for a few days before your period may help. If that doesn't work or your period is irregular, ask your doctor about using birth control pills continuously.
Watch the Weather
While you can't always avoid it, you can try to become less sensitive to elements that affect you -- like higher temperature, humidity, a drop in barometric pressure -- by facing them regularly and for gradually longer stretches. If you get migraines more often when you also have a stuffy, runny, or itchy nose, ask your doctor if antihistamines or allergy shots could help. Avoid decongestants; they can sometimes cause migraines.
Special lenses might help if your migraines are triggered or made worse by light. And they're available without a prescription.
Review Your Medicines
Some prescription and over-the-counter products, from heartburn pills to antidepressants, have been linked to migraine. Check with your doctor to see if what you're taking could be a trigger. Adjusting the dose or changing problem drugs may lower the number of migraines you get.
Don't Wait for Pain
Most migraines start with at least one symptom hours or even a day before a headache sets in. Common ones are yawning, a change in mood or irritability, fatigue, neck ache, and sensitivity to light. Take your migraine medication as soon as you notice any of these signs, and you may be able to prevent a full-blown attack.
When you should ask for help for your migraines
Sometimes, headache can signal a more serious problem. You should talk to your doctor about your headaches if:
- You have several headaches per month and each lasts for several hours or days
- Your headaches disrupt your home, work, or school life
- You have nausea, vomiting, vision, or other sensory problems (such as numbness or tingling)
- You have pain around the eye or ear
- You have a severe headache with a stiff neck
- You have a headache with confusion or loss of alertness
- You have a headache with convulsions
- You have a headache after a blow to the head
- You used to be headache-free, but now have headaches a lot
I get migraines right before my period. Could they be related to my menstrual cycle?
More than half of migraines in women occur right before, during, or after a woman has her period. This often is called "menstrual migraine." But, just a small fraction of women who have migraine around their period only have migraine at this time. Most have migraine headaches at other times of the month as well.
How the menstrual cycle and migraine are linked is still unclear. We know that just before the cycle begins, levels of the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, go down sharply. This drop in hormones may trigger a migraine, because estrogen controls chemicals in the brain that affect a woman's pain sensation.
What are some ways I can prevent migraine?
The best way to prevent migraine is to find out what triggers your attacks and avoid or limit these triggers. Since migraine headaches are more common during times of stress, finding healthy ways to cut down on and cope with stress might help. Starting a fitness program or taking a class to learn relaxation skills helps.
Talk to us if you need to take your pain-relief medicine more than twice a week. Doing so can lead to rebound headaches. If your doctor has prescribed medicine for you to help prevent migraine, take them exactly as prescribed. Ask what you should do if you miss a dose and how long you should take the medicine. Talk with your doctor if the amount of medicine you are prescribed is not helping your headaches.