How To Recognize Symptoms of a Migraine

Remember that "worst headache of my life?"  Did you dismiss it as an unpleasant anomaly, only to suffer another similarly awful headache some time later?  You might be one of roughly fifteen percent of the population who suffer from migraines (and, more specifically, one of the five percent whose migraines are undiagnosed).

  1. What is a migraine?  For years, migraines were considered to be a vascular condition, the theory being that these headaches were triggered by the swelling of blood vessels.

    Though explanation of migraines is not yet entirely complete, scientists have discovered much more about the nature of migraines over the past decade.  Here's what they've uncovered:

    • Neurological rather than vascular?  Migraine might involve the dilation and irritation of blood vessels, but doctors have increasingly come to theorize that the cause of the vasodilatation is a neurological phenomenon called cortical spreading depression (a depression of activity through part of the brain's cortex).  The subsequent drop in serotonin levels provokes the trigeminal nerve (one of the big pain transmitters) to send out neuropeptides, which cause dilation and inflammation of the blood vessels in superficial layer of the brain.
    • Possibly genetic?  Recent research indicates that some, if not all, migraines have a genetic connection.
    • Hormonal link?  The role of hormone-neurotransmitter serotonin has already been mentioned, but it's hard to ignore the fact that a striking majority of post-pubescent onset of migraines occur in women rather than men.  By comparison, the rate of incidence before puberty is roughly equal between the genders.  Scientists suspect a strong link between hormonal cycles and certain migraines.
    • Or is it primarily vascular after all... but in an entirely different way than was traditionally suspected?  A recent study suggests a possible link between migraines and the existence of a physical hole in the heart.  Located between the two upper chambers of the heart, this hole would allow unpurified blood to travel back toward the brain without passing through the lungs.  When holes were found and then patched, migraine sufferers noticed that their migraines no longer occurred.

    All questions, rather than definitive answers.  Migraines continue to be the focus of intense research and attention as the medical community's impressions evolve.  Even if doctors aren't entirely sure about the full nature of migraines, there are recognizable symptoms that should compel you to make an appointment for a check-up.

  2. Headache.  A migraine headache generally lasts anywhere from four to 72 hours.  Sufferers often report that their headache has a pulsating quality.  Movement often exacerbates the pain.  Another common quality of migraine headache is the sensitivity to light and/or sound.  Sometimes the pain is localized on one side of the head, while other sufferers experience a headache on both sides.  However, contrary to common perception, not all migraine sufferers experience headache.  
  3. Aura.  If you ever experience aura symptoms due to migraine, the first time can be quite alarming.  You might fear that your vision is disappearing permanently, or that somehow something entered your eye sockets and is destroying your eyes (if you're as neurotic as me).  You might even worry that you've suffered a minor stroke.  Compounding this fear is the fact that an aura migraine can occur by itself, without a headache ever developing.

    The aura experience is pretty diverse among people who suffer migraines.  If you have a migraine with aura, most people experience the aura just before headaches enter the picture (if it ever does), although sometimes the onset of headache precedes aura symptoms.

    • Auras often manifest themselves as visual disturbances - swirling, crawling or flashing visual impediments that gradually develop and last anywhere from five minutes to an hour.
    • Tingling or numb sensations can also define you experience, and can last for the same amount of time.
    • Visual or tingling/numb auras can develop only on one side of the visual field or body, respectively (much as a migraine headache sometimes occurs only on one side of the head).
    • The migraine's aura might not be visual or sensory at all, but instead a difficulty expressing yourself in speech.  This kind of aura is rarer than the other two previously described.
    • Sometimes, more than one of these auras can happen during the same migraine.
  4. Nausea.  An untreated migraine (or a treated one, for that matter) can to nausea and even vomiting.  However, purely abdominal migraines can occur (especially in children), symptoms of which include nausea, vomiting, poor appetite and moderate or intense soreness and pain in the belly.
  5. Talk to your doctor.  Clearly, not all migraines are the same.  Some people suffer migraines whose symptoms last for days.  For others, the headache is gone in a couple hours.  Still others don't even suffer a headache.  Not only that, but these symptoms are not exclusive to migraine; they might indicate other conditions altogether.  For proper diagnosis and treatment, schedule an appointment with your physician.  Even if you have told doctors about your symptoms to no avail in the past, correct diagnosis is far likelier now that the medical community has a more sophisticated understanding of migraines.

    Diagnosis and treatment for migraine sufferers has advanced considerably.  Though there is no known cure for migraines, the outlook is far more promising as of late, and continues to improve.

If you suffer frequent debilitating headaches, you should schedule a doctor's appointment.  If migraines are the culprit, your doctor can talk to you about possible migraine treatment options.  Suggestions might be nothing more than dietary adjustment to reduce the frequency of your migraines.


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