Migraine Headaches


What causes headaches?

Many things can cause headaches. The most common types of headache are migraines and tension headaches. These can be caused by the following:

  • Stress
  • Certain foods and beverages
  • Sleep problems
  • Sinus and allergy problems
  • Muscle tension, which can be caused by jaw clenching and poor posture
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hormonal changes in women
  • Certain medicines

Migraine headaches can run in families. This means that you are more likely to suffer from them if one of your family members also has frequent migraines.

How are headaches treated?

The most common treatments for headaches are rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. These include aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen. Keep in mind that children should not take aspirin. Aspirin can cause a serious illness called Reye's syndrome in children under 18 years of age.

If these common treatments don’t work, talk to your family doctor. He or she can prescribe medicine that might help relieve your headaches. Some people who suffer from very bad headaches need to have blood tests or X-rays to find out what is causing them.

Migraine Headaches: Ways to Deal With the Pain

What causes migraine headaches?

Migraine headaches seem to be caused in part by changes in the level of a chemical made in the brain called serotonin. Serotonin plays many roles in the body, and it can have an effect on blood vessels. When serotonin levels are high, blood vessels constrict. When serotonin levels fall, the blood vessels dilate. This dilation can cause pain or other problems.

Many things can affect the level of serotonin in your body, including your level of blood sugar, certain foods and changes in your estrogen level if you're a woman.

What does a migraine feel like?

The pain of a migraine headache can be intense. It can get in the way of your daily activities. Migraines aren't the same for all people.
You may have a "premonition" several hours to a day before your headache starts. Premonitions are feelings you get that can signal a migraine is coming. These feelings can include intense energy, fatigue, food cravings, thirst and mood changes.

Possible symptoms of migraines

  • Intense throbbing or dull aching pain on one side of your head or both sides
  • Pain that worsens with physical activity
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Changes in how you see, including blurred vision or blind spots
  • Being bothered by light, noise or odors
  • Feeling tired and/or confused
  • Stopped-up nose
  • Feeling cold or sweaty
  • Stiff or tender neck
  • Light-headedness
  • Tender scalp

Are there different kinds of migraine headaches?

The most common are classic migraine and common migraine.

Classic migraines start with a warning sign, called an aura. The aura often involves changes in the way you see. You may see flashing lights and colors. You may temporarily lose some of your vision, such as your side vision.
You may also feel a strange prickly or burning sensation, or have muscle weakness on one side of your body. You may have trouble communicating. You may also feel depressed, irritable and restless.
Auras last about 15 to 30 minutes. Auras may occur before or after your head pain, and sometimes the pain and aura overlap, or the pain never occurs. The head pain of classic migraines may occur on one side of your head or on both sides.

Common migraines don't start with an aura. Common migraines may start more slowly than classic migraines, last longer and interfere more with daily activities. The pain of common migraines may be on only one side of your head.

How long do migraines usually last?

Migraines can last from 4 to 72 hours. They may happen only once or twice a year, or as often as daily. Women are more likely to have migraines than men.

What can set off a migraine?

Things that can set off migraines include the following:

  • Strong or unusual odors, bright lights or loud noises
  • Changes in weather or altitude
  • Feeling tired, stressed or depressed
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Missing meals or fasting
  • Menstrual periods, birth control pills or hormonal changes (in women)
  • Intense physical activity, including sexual activity
  • Smoking
  • Fumes
  • Certain foods, especially those that contain tyramine, sodium nitrate or phenylalanine

Foods that may trigger migraines:

  • Aged, canned, cured or processed meat, including bologna, game, ham, herring, hot dogs, pepperoni and sausage
  • Aged cheese
  • Alcoholic beverages, especially red wine
  • Aspartame
  • Avocados
  • Beans, including pole, broad, lima, Italian, navy, pinto and garbanzo
  • Brewer's yeast, including fresh yeast coffee cake, donuts and sourdough bread
  • Caffeine (in excess)
  • Canned soup or bouillon cubes
  • Chocolate, cocoa and carob
  • Cultured dairy products, such as buttermilk and sour cream
  • Figs
  • Lentils
  • Meat tenderizer
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Nuts and peanut butter
  • Onions, except small amounts for flavoring
  • Papaya
  • Passion fruit
  • Pea pods
  • Pickled, preserved or marinated foods, such as olives and pickles, and some snack foods
  • Raisins
  • Red plums
  • Sauerkraut
  • Seasoned salt
  • Snow peas
  • Soy sauce

How are migraines treated?

There are 2 types of medicines for migraine treatments. One type focuses on relieving the headache pain. This type of treatment should be started as soon as you think you're getting a migraine. The other type includes medicines that are used to prevent headaches before they occur.

People who have more severe pain may need prescription medicine. A medicine called ergotamine can be effective alone or combined with other medicines. Dihydroergotamine is related to ergotamine and can be helpful.
Other prescription medicines for migraines include sumatriptan, zolmitriptan, naratriptan, rizatriptan, almotriptan, eletriptan and frovatriptan.
If the pain won't go away, stronger medicine may be needed, such as a narcotic, or medicines that contain a barbiturate. These medicines can be habit-forming and should be used cautiously.

Medicine to prevent migraines may be helpful if your headaches happen more than twice a month or if your headaches make it hard for you to work and function.

What else can I do to prevent migraines?

Try to avoid foods or other things that seem to cause migraines for you. Keep a journal to help you identify triggers. Get plenty of sleep and drink plenty of fluids. Try to relax and reduce the stress in your life. Also try to get regular exercise. Aerobic exercise can help reduce tension as well as keep your weight in check. Obesity can contribute to migraines.

Tips on reducing the pain

  • Lie down in a dark, quiet room.
  • Put a cold compress or cloth over your forehead.
  • Massage your scalp using a lot of pressure.
  • Put pressure on your temples.


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