To mark Migraine Awareness Week (4th-10th Sept), expert Dr Gerry Saldanha Consultant Neurologist at Benenden Hospital, answers some of the most common questions about the condition…
What is a migraine?
Migraine is a common, often debilitating disorder which affects approximately 11% of the population in western countries. It can cause significant disruption to the everyday life of many people who are otherwise healthy.
What are the symptoms of a migraine?
The main symptom of a migraine will typically be a severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraines can be accompanied by transient neurological symptoms which can include blind spots, seeing zigzag patterns and flashing lights, prickly skin. These symptoms can develop gradually over 30 minutes and last up to an hour. The symptoms will generally precede the headache by up to 60 minutes
What is important to bear in mind is that symptoms will vary from person to person - and even individuals may experience different symptoms on different occasions. Attacks typically last from between 4 to 72 hours but length and frequency can vary.
How does a migraine differ from a normal headache?
It can be difficult to tell whether you are experiencing a headache or a migraine, but the main comparison would be in the intensity of the pain. A migraine can cause severe pain which may make performing daily tasks difficult. Sufferers may experience the additional symptoms as outlined above such as visual disturbances (i.e. blind spots in vision) or sensitivity to light/noise.
What can cause a migraine?
There is no known cause for migraines, but they are thought to arise because of some form of abnormal brain activity which has a temporary effect on nerve signals.
Triggers can vary from person to person – and can include things such as lack of sleep, hormonal changes, stress, alcohol consumption or environmental factors.
Do you have any tips on coping with a migraine?
- Learn to recognise warning signs of a migraine (this can include things such as nausea, dizziness or neck stiffness). The earlier you spot the signs the quicker you can treat the migraine.
- Migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound. Relax in a dark, quiet room until your symptoms start to ease. Removing external factors should help decrease the severity of the migraine.
- Basic painkillers can help with the pain you’ll be experiencing but if this doesn’t help you may need to talk to your GP about prescription medication options.
- Recording details of your migraine attacks in a diary can be useful to help you identify possible trigger factors and provide a record for your GP when making a diagnosis.
What kind of medical treatment is available?
For sufferers who experience migraines regularly you should speak to your GP about potential treatment options. Acute treatment options include simple analgesics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), and Triptans. Patients are advised to limit doses to two or fewer days per week to minimise the risk of rebound headache. Headache preventative medications include antidepressants, anticonvulsants, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers and potentially BOTOX® injections.
Patients starting new preventive therapy should keep in mind that it may take a few weeks for full treatment effects to occur. It is important to increase the dose as instructed and record any benefits and side effects so that a systematic approach to treatment can be undertaken by you and your doctor.
Are there any other preventive steps you can take to help avoid migraines?
There are many small changes you can make to your lifestyle to help reduce the likelihood of a migraine, these can include things such as:
- Eating regularly and avoiding sugary snacks to keep blood sugar levels stable.
- Getting regular exercise
- Maintaining a regular sleep pattern (avoid too little or too much sleep)
- Drinking plenty of water (and limiting consumption of caffeine and alcohol)
- Avoiding bright or flashing lights
- Taking breaks away from your computer screen if you are spending large periods of time working with one
- Avoid any triggers which you know you are sensitive to
- Maintain good posture
- Avoid weight gain; lose weight if indicated depending on your BMI
Where can I go for more information/support?
There are a wide range of online resources with advice and guidance for sufferers, such as: