Lethargy, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances and extreme light or sound sensitivity from migraines may send you to bed. But you don’t have to take these headaches lying down.
“You don’t have to tough them out,” says Ferhad Bashir, MD, neurologist with Mischer Neuroscience Associates at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center. “There are ways to treat them and improve your quality of life.”
About 36 million Americans know they suffer migraines, and more than 10 million are undiagnosed, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.
One in five women, one in 16 men and one in 11 children are afflicted with the throbbing headaches. Given that nine in 10 are incapacitated, “Migraines are not a light matter,” Dr. Bashir says.
If you are among the millions suffering from migraines, here’s what you should know:
Q. What causes migraines?
A. Blood vessels within the brain expand, leading to inflammation of nerves and membranes that cover the brain, Dr. Bashir says. Nine of 10 sufferers have a family history of migraines, which can be brought on or worsened by stress, anxiety, depression or a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Q. Are all migraines the same?
A. There are many kinds of migraines. Most are categorized as with or without auras, he says.
Auras refer to flashes of lights, zigzag lines and spots that interfere with vision in one of four migraines. Facial numbness and tingling of the extremities also may occur.
Q. Can migraines endanger your health beyond the pain?
A. Females with migraines with auras have a slightly higher relative risk of stroke. “In such individuals, extra caution is advised, with regards to smoking and estrogen-containing products, as these could further increase the risk of stroke,” Dr. Bashir says.
Q. How can you distinguish migraines from other kinds of headaches?
A. According to Dr. Bashir, migraines’ head pain may be moderate to severe, like other headaches, but related symptoms may disable. Most last 4 hours to 3 days and worsen with activity. Two thirds of migraines afflict one side of the head. They tend to strike once or twice monthly, though almost one in 10 sufferers has migraines daily or every other day.
In contrast, tension headaches are milder and respond to over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Q. How will your doctor determine the source of your headaches?
A. Symptoms, a physical exam and family and personal health history may be enough. Your doctor may order blood work and MRIs, or magnetic resonance imaging of the head to help rule out other causes.
Q. When is it time to go to a doctor?
A. You should be concerned if a headache is the worst of your life or otherwise differs from previous ones. If a headache causes you to lose consciousness or have a seizure or increases when you change positions, promptly contact your primary care physician, neurologist or headache specialist. Also seek a doctor’s care if headaches limit your life.
Q. How can you relieve headaches at home?
A. Managing stress, getting adequate sleep, exercising and following a healthy nutritional plan can help. So, can avoiding personal food triggers. “Common culprits are chocolate, alcohol or fermented products (such as miso, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt and tempeh).” NSAIDs such as ibuprofen may be enough to control the pain.
Q. What other treatments are available?
A. Doctors may recommend biofeedback, relaxation techniques and physical therapy to help reduce the frequency or severity of your headaches.
Your doctor also may prescribe medications to give acute relief or prevent future headaches. All drugs should be individualized, to maximize benefits and minimize side effects.
“There’s no one size fits all,” Dr. Bashir says.