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Migraines in Adults

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A migraine is much more than just a headache. It’s a pain that many people find hard to understand unless they have experienced a migraine themselves. Migraines can affect your whole body and have a big impact on how you go about your everyday life. Here is some advice on how to spot a migraine and a few useful tips for how to cope with migraines

What is a migraine?

Migraines are a common health condition, which normally begins in early adulthood. Usually, a migraine is felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head, although sometimes in can affect both sides of your head. Some people may suffer from frequent migraine attacks, up to several times a week in severe cases, whereas others can go years without experiencing an episode. It’s thought to affect 12 – 15% of people and is three times more common in women than it is in men.

Symtoms of migraine headaches

The main symptom of a migraine is an intense headache on one side of the head. Migraine symptoms usually differ for each individual so it’s not unusual for pain to occur on both sides of your head, your face or even your neck.

Additional symptoms often associated with a migraine include:

  • feeling nauseous
  • being sick
  • sensitivity to light or sound (this is why lots of migraine sufferers like to rest in a dark and quiet room)

Migraine sufferers may occasionally experience other symptoms such as:

  • poor concentration
  • feeling either very hot or very cold
  • diarrhoea

Migraine symptoms can last anywhere between four hours and up to three days in very severe instances. If you have had a particularly bad migraine you might feel very tired afterwards, so it’s important to get plenty of rest.

The stages of a migraine

Some migraine sufferers find their migraines follow the same pattern:

  1. Prodromal stage. The pre-headache stage. You might notice changes in your mood, energy or appetite several hours before a migraine attack.
  2. Aura. This usually relates to visual problems, including flashes of light or blind spots.
  3. Headache. Intense pain often felt on one side of the head, which may or may not be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light / noise.
  4. Resolution. Yourheadache and any other symptoms begin to fade away. You might feel tired for a few days after experiencing a migraine.

What causes a migraine?

The exact cause of migraines is not yet known, but it is thought that migraines are the result of abnormal brain activity which temporarily alters nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain.

It’s not yet clear what triggers this change in brain activity but it’s quite possible that your genes could mean you are more or less susceptible to experiencing migraines as an adult.

You’ll know if you’re experiencing migraine symptoms because as well as a sharp stabbing pain in the side of the head, you might also get visual disturbance (known as an ‘aura’) and sickness.

What trigger migraine headaches?

Because the exact cause of migraines is yet to be defined, it is a little difficult to pinpoint any exact triggers. Migraine triggers tend to vary from person to person and are often very specific to the individual. That being said hormonal, emotional, dietary, physical and medicinal factors have all been suggested as potential migraine triggers.

Hormonal triggers

Some women might find that they experience migraines around the time of their period. It is thought that fluctuations in hormone levels, more specifically the hormone oestrogen could be a cause of migraines. In fact, some women who suffer headaches have noticed a link with their periods.

Emotional triggers

Migraine sufferers may find that the following emotions can spark a migraine attack.

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • excitement

Dietary triggers

The following dietary triggers are associated as a potential cause of migraine episodes.

  • missing meals or eating irregularly
  • alcohol
  • caffeinated drinks including tea and coffee
  • certain foods such as chocolate or cheese

Physical factors

  • feeling tired
  • poor quality sleep, for example if you do shift work
  • neck or shoulder tension
  • low blood sugar
  • doing too much strenuous exercise if you're not used to it

How to diagnose a migraine

There isn’t a specific test to diagnose migraines, but if you suspect you are experiencing symptoms regularly, it’s a good idea to book an appointment with your GP. Migraines are unpredictable which can make diagnosis difficult. For an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will need to identify a pattern of recurring headaches along with the associated migraine symptoms such as nausea, or light sensitivity. You may be referred to a specialist for further assessment if you experience chronic migraines.

Migraine treatment

Although there is currently no cure for migraines; every day modern medicine is learning more and more about what causes migraines, which could help find a new treatment for the condition. Until the day that a possible migraine cure is found, there are some simple things you can do to help make living with your migraines easier.

  • Try sleeping in a darkened or quiet room during an attack
  • Make sure you eat regularly
  • Take care to avoid any food which you know trigger your migraines
  • Excess caffeine might cause migraines for certain people so watch your caffeine intake
  • Ensure you are getting enough sleep
  • Over the counter painkillers which contain ibuprofen, such as Nurofen 200mg Liquid Capsules* can help to provide relief for migraines.
  • If ordinary painkillers are not proving effective in relieving pain it’s a good idea to see your GP who may prescribe specialist medication
  • Some migraine sufferers find that acupuncture can help to manage symptoms

As migraines are so individual, it may take some time to find the most effective way to manage your migraines, so be patient. It’s important to remember that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.

Tips for migraine prevention

Sometimes it might not be obvious what the cause of your migraines is. To work out whether there's a pattern to your migraine attacks, it can help to keep a headache diary. Try to note down activities that took place before or during the migraine in as much detail as possible. This will help you identify your specific triggers.

If you are planning to start a migraine diary, here are a few points to consider noting:

  • what did you eat or drink?
  • what activities were you doing?
  • how much sleep did you get the night before?
  • did anything stressful or important happen that day?

If you suspect that your diet may be triggering your migraine attacks, you could follow an elimination diet as part of your migraine treatment. If you do this and you don’t have an attack for a while, then it’s possible a particular food may have been responsible for your migraines.

So, that you know for sure, re-introduce each one of the suspect foods into your diet every two days. If you get a migraine following eating a certain food, you may have found the culprit!

Coping with migraines

Build your support

Put together a support team of friends, family and work colleagues who can spring into action when they get the 'Migraine Alert' call from you. Tell them what triggers your migraines and what they can do to help you through an attack.

Emergency plans at home

Create a contingency plan for when a migraine strikes. For example, have an emergency food supply in the freezer if you’re unable to cook. Or ask members of the family to be responsible for certain chores. A migraine can strike at any time so what can you do if you’re at work and you feel a migraine developing? First: try and adjust the lighting at your desk to reduce glare from your computer screen - it could be the reason your migraines started. If that doesn’t help, perhaps see if there’s a room where you could go and lie down for half an hour. If you think its work pressure that’s causing your migraines perhaps you could negotiate a different working style with your boss.

When to see a doctor

If you are experiencing frequent (more than five days a month) or severe migraines, it’s a good idea to book an appointment with your GP. You should call the emergency services immediately if you or someone you are experiences any of the following symptoms:

  • weakness in one or both arms/or one side of the face
  • slurred speech
  • a sudden agonising headache resulting in a severe blinding pain

*Nurofen 200mg Liquid Capsules contain Ibuprofen. For pain relief. Always read the label. Nurofen also works on other parts of the body and is indicated for other aches and pains.