Self-reported migraines and severe headaches affect roughly 1 in 6 Americans.
It’s a common theme, and it happens to many of us. Whether we experience them regularly, or from time to time, headaches present a real problem for many people in their day-to-day lives.
During National Migraine and Headache Awareness month we look to educate and spread awareness around this common condition. We also look to encourage people who experience migraines or chronic headaches to seek help and learn about the treatment options available to them.
In today’s article we’ll be exploring:
- What migraines and headaches are
- How and why migraines and headaches occur
- Symptoms and signs
- Treatment options available
- How to participate in National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month
Keep reading to learn more about migraines and chronic headaches and what you can do to get the help you need.
What are migraines and headaches? How do they happen?
So, what are migraines and headaches?
And what’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?
We often associate both with that throbbing, painful feeling we experience in various areas of the head, but there’s actually more to it than just that.
To begin with, headaches are actually just one of the symptoms of a migraine. Headaches can range in severity and length. But they’re actually different from migraines altogether, we sometimes experience them as a result of a migraine or separately on their own.
Some of the most common types of headaches include:
- Sinus headaches - clogged sinuses cause this type of headache to occur. When our sinus passages swell up, we experience a sinus headache.
- Cluster headaches - this type of headache tends to happen daily and sometimes many times per day for several months, and in different areas of the head. When blood vessels become dilated in the brain because of the release of serotonin and histamines we experience this type of headache. Changes in altitude, physical exertion, and bright light may bring on this type of headache.
- Tension headaches - these are the most common form of headaches we experience. Hunger, excess stress, and eye strain frequently cause this form of headache. Tension headaches are sometimes felt for prolonged periods of time.
Now, what differentiates a migraine from a headache?
As we mentioned earlier, a headache is just one symptom someone might experience as a result of a migraine.
Migraines involve nerve pathways and chemicals and they're seen as a neurobiological disease.
Hormones and chemical compounds like serotonin and estrogen often play a role in the pain we experience when a migraine occurs.
With more research and as better technology comes to the forefront, we’re starting to get a better understanding of migraines and why they occur.
A new theory suggests waves of activity from excitable brain cells may cause the migraine by triggering chemicals like serotonin, causing it to narrow blood vessels.
The theory states we experience a migraine when the levels of serotonin and/or estrogen change.
So, now that we know the potential science behind why we experience migraines, what causes them?
It varies from person to person, but triggers for migraines might include:
- Allergies - allergies often cause inflammation and irritation throughout the body. This could result in the inflammation of blood vessels, leading to a migraine.
- Environments - changes in our stress, diet, or the weather can all trigger the onset of a migraine.
- Genetics and family history - if members of your family suffer from migraines, you're more likely to experience them as well.
- Gender and hormonal shifts - women are 3 times more likely to experience migraines compared to men. Changes in hormones and menstrual cycles may affect the probability of women suffering from migraines.
Symptoms and signs
It’s important to understand the symptoms of headaches and migraines and the treatment options available.
Depending on the type of headache you’re experiencing you may deal with different symptoms. With a tension headache, pain is consistent and it feels mild to moderate. It affects both sides of the head (bilateral) and it can worsen while doing certain activities like running or bending over.
Cluster headaches are often intense and have a burning or stabbing-like sensation associated with them. They’re either constant or throbbing. Often, the pain occurs in the eye region or behind one eye and it doesn’t change sides.
Symptoms of sinus headaches may include fever, swelling in the face, bad taste in the mouth, and constant deep pain in the forehead and cheekbones. The pain may get worse with sudden head movements.
Migraines follow a different trajectory.
There are actually four stages people may experience with a migraine:
Not everybody who suffers from migraines goes through all four stages.
A few days prior to a migraine people might experience symptoms during the prodrome phase that could indicate a migraine is coming. This includes:
- Neck stiffness
- Fluid retention
- Food cravings
- Frequent yawning
- Increased urination
- Mood changes from depression to euphoria
The aura stage may occur before or even during a migraine. It usually consists of visual symptoms of the nervous system that are reversible, but other irritations may occur as well. Some symptoms include:
- Vision loss
- Difficulty speaking
- Pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg
- Weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body
- Visual phenomena like seeing bright spots or flashes of light
Now, during the actual migraine (the attack phase) people may experience:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain that throbs or pulses
- Sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell and touch
- Pain sometimes on one side of the head but more often on both sides
When a migraine is finally over, we enter the postdrome phase. People might feel drained and confused during this time, and sudden movement of the head may cause migraine pain again briefly.
So, now that we know symptoms to look out for, what about treatment options?
What can we do to treat the symptoms we experience?
Over-the-counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen may help alleviate the symptoms we experience with mild migraines and headaches.
But over-the-counter medications may not be enough for someone who experiences more moderate to severe migraines. Some medications treat symptoms and prevent future migraines from happening. Some of these medications include:
- Anti-seizure medications
- Blood pressure medications
- Botulinum toxin A (botox) injections
Making lifestyle changes could also help prevent different forms of migraines and headaches from occurring.
Exercising regularly, getting better sleep, taking part in relaxing activities such as mediation, and even avoiding certain “trigger” foods may help people prevent the onset of migraines and headaches.
Conclusion - National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month
Migraines and headaches are often brushed off as insignificant. But they can have a tremendous effect on someone's life.
During Migraine and Headache Awareness Month it’s important to spread awareness around these common disorders.
And with over 37 million people in the United States suffering from migraines it’s important that we not only spread awareness but also educate ourselves on symptoms and the treatment options available.
If you’re looking to participate, make sure to spread the word, educate, or even take part in events in your community that work to acknowledge the struggles people who suffer from migraines and headaches may experience.
And make sure to share this with a friend or family member that you feel could benefit from what we’ve shared today!