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What is a Migraine Headache?

A migraine is a powerful headache that often happens with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. Migraines can last from 4 hours to 3 days, and sometimes longer.

The American Migraine Foundation estimates that more than 36 million Americans get them, women 3 times more often than men. Most people start having migraine headaches between ages 10 and 40. But many women find that their migraines improve or disappear after age 50. They generally last between 4 and 72 hours.

What Causes Migraine Headaches?

Migraine headaches are a symptom of an overall condition known as migraine. Doctors don’t know the exact cause of migraine headaches, although they seem to be related to changes in the brain as well as to genes that run in families. You can even inherit the triggers that give you migraine headaches, like fatigue, bright lights, weather changes, and others.

For many years, scientists believed migraines resulted from changes in blood flow in the brain. Many now think that they happen because of flaws in the brain passed down from your parents.

A migraine starts when overactive nerve cells send out signals that activate the trigeminal nerve, the nerve that supplies sensation to your head and face. Activation of the nerve causes release of certain chemicals like serotonin and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP). CGRP causes blood vessels in the lining of the brain to swell. This releases neurotransmitters that create inflammation and pain.

What Can Trigger a Migraine Headache?

Some common migraine triggers include:

Are Migraine Headaches Hereditary?

Yes, migraine headaches seem to run in families. Four out of 5 people with the condition have other family members who have them. If one parent has a history of these type of headaches, their child has a 50% chance of getting them, and if both parents have them, the risk jumps to 75%.

What Are the Symptoms of Migraine Headaches?

You can have a mix of migraine symptoms. Common ones include:

Most migraine headaches last about 4 hours, but severe ones can go for more than 3 days. How often they happen differs for everyone, but it’s common to get two to four headaches per month. Some people may get migraine headaches every few days, while others get them once or twice a year.

Types of Migraine Headaches

The terms for two types of migraine headaches refer to the symptoms that signal when one is about to start, called an aura.

An aura can start 1 hour before the pain and usually last for 15 minutes to 1 hour. Visual auras include:

Other auras can affect your other senses. You might just have a “funny feeling” and not be able to describe the sensation. You could also have ringing in the ears or changes in smell (such as strange odors), taste, or touch.

Rare migraine conditions include these types of auras:

Migraine headaches without auras are more common. Several hours before the headache starts, you can have vague symptoms, including:

How Are Migraine Headaches Treated?

There’s no cure for migraine headaches. But many drugs can treat or even prevent some of them. You can also get them less often by avoiding triggers. Common types of migraine treatments include: 

Can You Prevent Migraines?

Yes. You can have them less often when you identify and avoid migraine triggers. Keep track of your symptom patterns in a headache diary so you can figure out what’s causing them.

Stress management and relaxation training can help prevent your attacks or make them less severe.

Women who often get migraine headaches around their periods can take preventive medicines when they know it’s that time of the month.

People also seem to have fewer migraine symptoms when they eat on a regular schedule and get enough rest. Regular exercise — in moderation — can also help prevent them.

When lifestyle changes aren’t enough, you have other options. Preventive migraine medications can make your headaches less severe and happen less often when you take them on a regular basis.

Also, there are some new devices which can help. Cefaly is a portable, headband-like gadget sends electrical pulses through the skin of the forehead. It stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which is linked with migraine headaches. You use Cefaly once a day for 20 minutes, and when it’s on you’ll feel a tingling or massaging sensation. In addition, there is a noninvasive vagus nerve stimulator called gammaCore. When placed over the vagus nerve in the neck, it releases a mild electrical stimulation to the nerve’s fibers to relieve pain.

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