Everything You Need to Know About Migraines
That first throb of a migraine is the absolute worst feeling. You know that things are about to get real nasty, but you’re at a loss for how you could have prevented it and what the best plan of action is now that it’s imminent. You’re definitely not alone – roughly 12% of the population suffers from migraines, and women, specifically, are more likely to deal with them compared to men. Today our goal is to help you better understand what a migraine is, what the most common triggers are, and how to prevent and treat them.
Headache vs. Migraine: What’s the Difference?
The terms “headache” and “migraine” are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually two different things. Basically: a migraine is a type of headache, but not all headaches are migraines.
“Migraines are more associated with sensitivity to light and sound and are usually preceded by warning symptoms. On the other hand, a regular headache only occurs in one part of your temple. Migraines also often start in childhood or young adulthood,” explains Dr. Steven Schnur, a board-certified internist and cardiologist.
Generally speaking, migraines are considered much more painful and debilitating. They can put you out of commission for hours or sometimes even a couple days. Many people suffering from a migraine may feel like they have to be in a dark, quiet space until it’s passed.
If you’re not sure how to tell the difference between the two, check for these tell-tale signs that it’s actually a migraine you’re dealing with:
You Experience “Auras”: These are warning symptoms that occur before the migraine fully sets in. Auras vary from person to person, but often include flashing lights, zig-zagging lines, and other visual disturbances.
High Sensitivity to Light, Sound, and Scent: One of the primary reasons a migraine sufferer tucks themselves into a dark and quiet room is because noises and light can worsen the pain they’re feeling.
A Throbbing Sensation: Regular headaches can produce throbbing, but it’s usually only in one temple versus an all-over sensation.
Nausea and Gastro Upset: While we think of migraines as affecting only our heads, they can actually cause gastrointestinal upset, including diarrhea and/or vomiting.
It Lasts 24 Hours or Longer: Some regular headaches can last this long, but if you experience any variation of the above symptoms that last for a day or more, it’s very likely you’re dealing with a migraine.
What Causes Migraines in the First Place?
There are a handful of common migraine triggers:
Hormonal Changes: One reason why women are disproportionately affected by migraines is because of their monthly hormone cycle. “If your migraines occur mostly around ovulation or your menses, the migraines are usually due to fluctuating reproductive hormone levels. In these cases, this must be addressed for most migraines to improve,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, a board-certified internist. Pregnancy and menopause also cause hormonal fluctuations that can trigger a migraine.
Lack of Sleep: Not getting enough sleep is a common migraine trigger. Aim for eight hours every night and listen to your body’s needs.
Food Sensitivities: It may not seem related, but the foods you eat, as well as nutritional deficiencies, can absolutely trigger a migraine. Common culprits include wheat, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, dairy, and citrus.
Physical Distress: A body that’s dealing with extreme physical changes or stressors is more likely to experience a migraine. Those can include low blood sugar from not eating, dehydration, fatigue, muscle tension, and jet lag.
Emotional Distress: Stress, anxiety, sadness, or feelings of depression can all contribute to the onset of a migraine.
Your Environment: Loud noises, strong smells, flashing or flickering lights, and extreme temperatures can all trigger migraines.
The Best Way to Curb & Zap a Migraine
Prevention is the most crucial part of the equation here. Knowing the common triggers and doing your best to avoid them is vital to keeping a migraine from sneaking up on you. And while there’s not much you can do about hormonal fluctuations, being especially mindful of avoiding the other triggers can help reduce your chances of experiencing a migraine during said fluctuations.
As for stopping a migraine in its tracks or lessening your symptoms, you do have a few options. First, an over-the-counter pain-relieving medicine can help. From there, try to address any of the triggers right away. If you’re hungry, get some nutritious food in your belly. If you’re feeling emotionally distressed, meditate. If your muscles are tense, get in a good 30 to 60 minutes of yoga.
“There are also certain types of prescription medicines, such as Maxolt or triptans, which work to block the pain pathways. There are also some nasal sprays that you can use,” says Dr. Schnur. “However, note that these medications aren’t preventative, but instead help relieve pain for the time being.”
If these are new symptoms, or your migraine frequency has increased, it’s best to speak with a doctor.