If you suffer from migraine headaches, you are not alone. The painful, often debilitating neurological condition affects 12 percent of the U.S. population — or 39 million men, women and children. Migraines, considered one of the top 10 most disabling diseases on the planet by the World Health Organization, are the cause of 113 million lost workdays per year in the United States.
Migraines involve recurrent attacks of moderate to severe pain that is throbbing or pulsing and often strikes one side of the head. Untreated attacks last from four to 72 hours. Other common symptoms include increased sensitivity to light, noise and odors, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Triggers to avoid
Dr. Amirhassan Bahreman, a neurologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, treats migraine patients of all ages, many of whom have family members who also have migraines. "While genetics are a major predisposition for migraines, we don't know the true underlying cause. We do, however, understand the mechanisms which result in migraines and what can trigger an attack."
Here are the top known triggers:
- Diets high in additives, chocolate or alcohol
- Hormonal changes, such as menstruation
- Environmental factors, such as altitude or weather changes
- Head or neck pain and injury
- Physical exercise or sexual activity
- Stress and anxiety
Diagnosis and treatment
Not every headache is a migraine. The most common type is the tension headache, which is often a mild, persistent, squeezing-type discomfort that occasionally radiates down to the neck area and is not debilitating. Patients with these types of headaches can continue to function without medication or with a mild over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
If you experience at least one strong headache per week that leaves you functionally disabled, it is time to see a doctor. Your doctor will first need to ask a series of questions to better understand your physical symptoms, medical history and other factors that may contribute. Frequency and intensity of attacks are major factors in diagnosing and treating migraine patients.
According to Dr. Bahreman, treatment for migraines focuses on prevention and reducing symptoms. The primary forms of treatment include medications and risk factor prevention. Medication regimens can differ from person to person, and may include a number of different types of drugs. Risk factor prevention includes avoiding triggers and engaging in a healthy lifestyle: eat well and consistently, exercise regularly, avoid smoking and secondary smoke, sleep seven to eight hours a day, and limit or eliminate alcohol use.