What are Migraines?
Migraines are a certain type of headache, and anyone who has ever experienced a migraine knows just how painful and debilitating they can be. The typical migraine causes a severe headache which can last between 4 and 72 hours in left untreated and it often comes with a number of other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and mental confusion as well as light and sound sensitivity.
In some cases, migraines are preceded or accompanied by neurological symptoms known as migraine auras. These sensory symptoms often begin some time before the headache, and may include disturbances in visual perception such as flashing lights, seeing zigzag lines, blurred vision, sensations of dizziness and other visual hallucinations.
Migraines with auras, also known as classic migraines, are less common that migraines without aura. Migraines tend to affect people differently and will vary in severity, duration and frequency between individuals.
Some people may be plagued with migraines regularly, while others will only experience them once or twice in a year. The good news is that there are a number of treatment options available today for relief that weren’t available just a decade ago, and much can be done to help prevent migraine attacks, and to ease the pain when they do occur.
What Causes Migraines?
The underlying cause of migraines is not fully understood. Some researches have suggested that the condition is neurological and caused by changes in serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. As a reaction to these changes, brain neurons release additional neuropeptides which cause pain and inflammation of the blood vessels. Migraines could also be hereditary, and approximately 70% of migraine sufferers have a family history of this condition.
In addition, migraines can be brought on or triggered by a number of factors. These triggers will vary among people but the common triggers include:
- Certain foods (common foods including chocolate, cheese, alcohol, and caffeine)
- Skipping meals or fasting
- Hormonal changes (many women experience migraines during there menstrual cycle, menopause or pregnancy)
- Stress, tension or anxiety
- Intense physical activity
- Changes in the physical environment such as changes in season, temperature or altitude
- Various sensory stimuli such as bright lights, flashing lights, unusual smells and loud noise
- Changes in sleeping patterns, sleep disorders or lack of sleep
- Alcohol and tobacco smoke
- Over-the-counter and prescription medication
Your doctor will base the diagnosis on a physical examination as well as your medical, family and headache history. Keeping a headache journal is also recommended so that you can ascertain if there is a pattern to your migraines. If the migraine is severe, or any other abnormalities are suspected, tests may include procedures such as a CT scan, MRI scan or spinal tap.
Help for Migraines
There are a number of ways of treating recurring migraines. These include prescription and OTC medication, natural remedies and complementary therapies.
Prescription and OTC medication
There is no known medical cure for migraine headaches, and often migraine sufferers become discouraged when treatments do not rectify the problem. Doctors often prescribe a combination of medications such as abortive and preventative drugs, to try and prevent the migraine before it begins or lessen the pain when a migraine strikes.
Abortive medications will stop the headache and may prevent the recurrence of symptoms. They should be taken at the first indication of a migraine headache. Over-the-counter medications include Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) such as ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen as well as aspirin.
Prescribed medications include ergotamine, a vasoconstrictor, and serotonin receptor agonists. Preventive medication is specifically geared towards people who suffer from recurrent migraines, experiencing at least one a week, and includes prescription medication such as beta-blockers, anti-depressants, anti-convulsants and calcium channel blockers.
Homeopathic and herbal remedies can provide relief of the uncomfortable symptoms of migraine headaches and are also often able to address the problem at the source.
For example, there is a great deal of clinical evidence to support the effectiveness of Feverfew in the treatment of migraines. Regular use of this herb in therapeutic dosage can significantly reduce or eliminate the frequency and intensity of migraines. Milk Thistle is another commonly recommended herb found to be useful as a liver tonic.
Many naturopaths believe that a sluggish or ailing liver (due to environmental and dietary toxins) can be an underlying cause of migraines. Other herbs may also be recommended to address anxiety and stress (e.g. Passiflora) or fluctuating hormonal levels (e.g. Don Quai or Black Cohosh). Homeopathic ingredients such as China are excellent at calming headaches.
In addition the ingredients Kali phos and Chamomilla help soothe the nervous system and ease throbbing headaches caused by physical and mental exhaustion. Mag phos is another useful ingredient which can be used to soothe the nerves and treat muscle tension which is a common cause of migraines.