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Migraines are so much more than just Headaches: June is Migraine Awareness Month

cartoon showing different types of migraines

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraine affects 39 million US adults and children and 1 billion worldwide. While the average migraine sufferer experiences attacks one to two times a month, more than 4 million migraine sufferers are chronic migraine sufferers, with at least 15 migraines per month.

While many people may assume that migraines are just bad headaches, it’s important to note that migraines have disabling symptoms. The attacks last between 4 to 72 hours and in addition to severe throbbing pain, it is often accompanied by visual disturbances (aura), vomiting, dizziness, tingling, numbness and more. Migraines should be recognized as a disabling neurological condition, costing the US nearly $36 billion in lost productivity and healthcare costs.

Migraine Awareness Month is observed in the month of June to help educate the public not only on the prevalence of migraines but also the symptoms, triggers, and treatment options for sufferers. Migraine Awareness Month also helps overcome the stigma and misconception surrounding migraine attacks. Unfortunately there is no cure for migraines as researchers have yet to fully understand the disease.

In this article we review prevalence of the disease, symptoms, triggers and treatment options.

Migraine Prevalence

Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent disease in the world with nearly 1 out of 4 households in the US including a migraine sufferer. Migraine appears to be genetically associated with approximately 90% of sufferers having a family history.

18% of US women, 6% of men, and 10% of children are migraine sufferers. As you can see from these statistics, migraines disproportionately affect women (3:1 ratio). It’s been found that fluctuations in estrogen levels affect severity and frequency of migraines. Menstruation, which causes estrogen withdrawal, is known to be a common migraine trigger.

Migraine Symptoms

Oftentimes, migraine symptoms are similar to those of other types of disabling headaches and illnesses. However, in some cases, other disabling symptoms are present without head pain. While self-diagnosis is important, you should consult a headache specialist for an official migraine diagnosis since migraines can be misdiagnosed as other types of headaches like sinus headaches.

Migraines usually exhibit severe throbbing recurring pain on one side of the head. However, in 1/3 of attacks, both sides are affected. This pain can last from hours to days and over the counter migraine medications (e.g., Excedrin Migraine) do not always bring relief.

Additional symptoms are:

  • Migraine Aura. The aura can be flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in the arm, leg, or on one side of the face. It can occur before or with a headache. 25% of sufferers experience aura.
  • Vomiting and Nausea.
  • Sensitivity to sound and light.

Migraine Triggers

Triggers differ person to person and may not even be consistent in a sufferer’s lifetime, but the below are commonly cited migraine triggers:

  • Caffeine.
  • Alcohol.
  • Dairy. Aged cheeses, chocolate
  • Peanuts.
  • Salty Foods. Bouillon cubes
  • Additives. MSG, aspartame
  • Fruits. Figs, passion fruit, papaya, red plums, avocado
  • Preserved, Marinated, and Pickled Foods. Soy sauce, sauerkraut, raisins
  • Medications. If you are experiencing migraine-like side effect from your medication, contact your doctor.

Migraine Risk Factors

Researchers still don’t fully understand migraines but they have been able to identify certain risk factors (particularly family history and gender) that may predispose people to have migraines.

  • Family History. Family history appears to be the strongest risk factor for migraines. 90% of migraine sufferers has a family history of migraines. A child has a 50% chance of inheriting migraines if one parent has migraines, 75% if both parents have it.
  • Gender. As mentioned earlier, women are disproportionately affected by migraines. Researchers think it has something to do with estrogen.
  • Age and Weight. Younger/heavier
  • Injuries. Head injuries
  • Oral contraceptives. Contraceptive users tend to develop ocular migraines. It appears to have something to do with estrogen.
  • Other Illnesses. Migraines have been linked to other illnesses and conditions such as Bell’s palsy and fibromyalgia. If you have either of these illnesses, see a specialist. Unfortunately, migraines can double the risk of Bell’s palsy as well as worsen fibromyalgia symptoms.

Migraine Treatment Options

Unfortunately because migraine causes aren’t fully understood, there isn’t a universal cure. However, some sufferers have found relief in the below:

  • Professional care. Not all migraine patients experience the same severity and frequency of pain — some have the occasional attack while others suffer from debilitating, chronic migraines. Chronic migraines are defined as fifteen or more headache days per month, eight of which are migraines. If your migraines are interfering with your everyday life, consider looking into inpatient care. A good inpatient clinic can break the chronic migraine circle. However, inpatient care is expensive, so make sure to check with your insurance company beforehand.
  • Medication. There are two main categories of migraine medications: pain-relieving and preventative. Pain-relieving medications like triptans are taken after migraine symptoms begin, offering short-term relief. Preventative medications such as antidepressants and cardiovascular drugs are long-term treatments to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. While many of these medications are in pill form, doctors may also administer medication via IV, intramuscular injections, or nasal spray.
  • Alternative therapies. Unfortunately, traditional migraine treatments such as pain-relieving and preventative medication do not always work for everyone. For some, alternative therapies like acupuncture, biofeedback, and mindfulness meditation may also help relieve migraines.
  • Lifestyle. Pay attention to how your lifestyle affects the frequency and severity of your headaches. A headache diary can be helpful for identifying and controlling migraine triggers such as food intake.
  • Time. Aging has a benefit when it comes to migraine headaches. Older patients find that they have fewer migraine headaches and symptoms.

If you’re looking to see a specialist, check out Slingshot Health. There are a number of neurologists that are able to diagnose and provide care for migraine sufferers.

About Slingshot Health

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