What exactly are migraines?
Migraines belong to a very specific sect of headache. They are characterized by intense, throbbing pain in a localized region—generally behind one or both eyes—and are often accompanied by nausea, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, blurred vision and auras. A tendency to get migraines can generally be predicted based on family history, with most migraines occurring to people whose parents or grandparents have experienced migraines.
Not too much is known about the exact reason behind migraines, although genetic and environmental factors seem to be a pretty good predictor. It is believed that the pain-regulating brain chemical serotonin plays a role. Serotonin levels drop during attacks, leading to an increased sensitivity to pain. Low levels of serotonin may also trigger the production of neuropeptides to fire, resulting in head pain.
Migraines are also intensified by hormonal shifts. This could be one of the reasons why women are so much more prone to migraines than men: we just have more big hormonal changes in our day-to-day lives. Many women have found that migraines peak in number and intensity during their periods, and are exacerbated during pregnancy and menopause. Most women also begin getting migraines around puberty, when hormone levels jump dramatically.
Can they be prevented?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to regulate our fluctuating hormone and chemical levels, but this doesn’t mean we are completely powerless to our migraines. The good news is that there are also certain external triggers associated with migraines, so cutting these out as much as possible can help widen the time between attacks.
To stop migraines from coming on, try to avoid:
Fatigue. Lack of sleep is a huge trigger for many women, especially when it comes from a disruption of her typical sleep-wake cycle. These disruptions can be caused by jet lag, not enough sleep, and too much sleep. It’s always best to try to go to sleep and wake up at about the same time every night, as long as you’re getting enough sleep to feel rested and refreshed all day long.
Stress. New and stressful situations are often a major trigger. If you find a situation is getting too stressful, try to walk away and regroup before tackling it. If leaving isn’t an option, focusing on your breathing can help bring your attention to something more calming, and can prevent an attack from coming on. Also remember to treat yourself: after a stressful day, unwind with yourself or loved ones to prevent a migraine. Plus, certain studies have shown that orgasm can help prevent migraines by relieving muscular tension. Do what you will with that info...
Drinks. Certain alcoholic drinks, especially red wine, and highly caffeinated drinks can trigger migraines. Some women find that these triggers are severe enough to cut them out completely. Generally, however, it is okay to consume these types of drinks in moderation—saying no to that second glass of red wine (and maybe having a white instead) could go a long way in preventing a migraine.
Junk food. The consumption of foods loaded with sweeteners and preservatives have been linked to migraine attacks. To prevent migraines, try cutting out highly processed food as much as possible, and opt for healthier options instead.
The pill. Women have mixed reactions to birth control pills, with some women saying they alleviate migraines and others saying they worsen them. However, it seems like the women with the most severe attacks respond most poorly to birth control, which adds more hormones to the monthly cycle. If you feel that the pill is making your migraines worse, talk to your doctor about switching to a different type of birth control.
Are there any treatments?
Since migraines are so common, they are also extremely widely studied, and various home and prescription remedies are available. When you feel a migraine coming on, some of the best treatments can be found right at home; others need a doctor to help you with.
Stress-relievers. If your migraines tend to be stress-induced, as many are, there are certain ways you can help as your migraine comes on. Focusing on taking long, deep breaths is an effective way to distract yourself from mild pain. As your migraine hits, it is also great to ease muscular tension, which can make the pain less severe. Massages, even from a friend or significant other, can relieve tension and help pain from hitting too severely. Certain pressure points, like the base of the head (on either side of the spot where it connects with the spine) and the top of your nose (right between your eyes) can help relieve pain, especially if it is located between the eyes. Play around with these pressure points to find what works best for you.
Darkness. Getting to a dark, quiet place is the number one way to help alleviate migraines once they’ve hit. Migraines are almost always sensitive to light and sound, so being alone in a dark room can help make them less severe while they’re happening.
Sleep. Once you’ve found a dark place, a great way to deal with migraines is to sleep them off. If you have an attack in a place where you can go to sleep, this will allow for time to pass without pain occurring. Often, trying to remain active during a migraine leads to increased nausea and sensitivity.
Medication. Some great options for pain relief are medicine-cabinet staples. Over the counter drugs like Advil and Tylenol can help relieve pain in mild migraines, and migraine-specific remedies, like Excedrin, are great for mild and moderate pain. These are all good options as long as your migraines are relatively mild and don’t occur too often, but be careful—overuse can cause nasty side effects like ulcers. For severe migraines, prescription medications use triptans to treat migraines. These drugs work by constricting blood vessels and blocking triggered pathways in the brain, which often leads to lessening of the symptoms. These medications often also cause drowsiness, and can help you sleep through a severe migraine.
Caffeine. I know—caffeine is a migraine “don’t”. But when its already hit, caffeine can work with pain meds to constrict your blood vessels and make your brain less sensitive to the hormonal and chemical changes affecting it. Getting a little caffeine in your system will help relieve some pain. For mild migraines, this might help you power through the rest of your day. For more severe ones, it should dull the pain enough to help you sleep through it.
We all know how terrible migraines are, especially if you get them often and severely. But knowing about what’s happening in your body and how you can help yourself before and during an attack will allow you to prepare for and cope with the pain. Play around with these tips and find a routine that works for you. It is possible to alleviate migraines and regain control of your head.