Is This a Migraine? And What Should I Do?

We all know someone who has migraines. These intense headaches affect 40 million Americans each year (and three times more men than women).

Migraines may occur a couple of times a year or, in a worst-case scenario, several times a month. Regardless, when they hit, the person experiencing them is down for the count. If it’s not you, it’s hard to really understand the disconcerting effects.

Many migraine sufferers describe a “visual aura” that precedes a migraine as a warning of sorts. An aura can occur before, during, or after the pain occurs and last from 15 to an hour. Visual auras include:

  • Bright flashing dots or lights
  • Blind spots
  • Distorted vision
  • Temporary vision loss
  • Wavy or jagged lines

According to the Mayo Clinic, it may look like this. That disturbing display is followed or accompanied by intense, throbbing pain, often localized on one side of the head. Other symptoms of migraines can include sensitivity to light or sound, eye pain, and/or nausea and vomiting. These symptoms can last anywhere from four hours to a week.

The reason migraines occur is still a bit baffling. Experts believe emotional stress is one of the leading factors, though chemicals in food (particularly nitrates and MSG), excessive caffeine, changing weather and menstrual periods are also culprits. At this point, it’s believed that people with migraines may inherit the tendency to be affected by certain migraine triggers like fatigue, bright lights, weather changes and others.

With uncertain causes and because migraines are seemingly unique to each individual, treatment is a challenge. Some sufferers are very attuned to onset symptoms and can take an over-the-counter pain reliever to minimalize the migraine’s intensity. Prescription medicines for both pain relief and prevention abound with different targets like blood pressure, depression, and anti-nausea. Most recently this spring, a “CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) inhibitor” was approved by the FDA as a preventative against migraine attacks.

Aside from traditional medicine, alternative therapies are worth considering. The Mayo Clinic suggests:

  • Practice muscle relaxation exercises. Relaxation techniques may include progressive muscle relaxation, meditation or yoga.
  • Get enough sleep, but don’t oversleep. Get the right balance of sleep each night, making sure to go to bed and wake up at consistent times.
  • Rest and relax. Try to rest in a dark, quiet room when you feel a headache coming on. Place an ice pack wrapped in a cloth on the back of your neck and apply gentle pressure to painful areas on your scalp.
  • Keep a headache diary. Continue recording in your headache diary even after you see your doctor. It will help you learn more about what triggers your migraines and what treatment is most effective.
  • Acupuncture. In this treatment, a practitioner inserts many thin, disposable needles into several areas of your skin at defined points.
  • Biofeedback. This relaxation technique uses special equipment to teach you how to monitor and control certain physical responses related to stress, such as muscle tension.
  • Massage therapy. Massage therapy may help reduce the frequency of migraines.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of psychotherapy teaches you how behaviors and thoughts affect how you perceive pain.

As always, if you begin experiencing any of the symptoms associated with a migraine, see your physician immediately to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

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