Headaches are an unpleasant fact of life, but for some people the pain just gets worse and develops into a migraine.
Aside from the sheer pain, it's perhaps the unpredictable nature of migraine attacks that hurts sufferers the most. It can be difficult to prepare for something that may occur almost on a daily basis or once in a blue moon; last from a few hours to several days; but be equally debilitating and all-consuming.
One thing is for sure - if you suffer from migraines you are not alone. It is the most common neurological condition in the world, affecting up to 15 per cent of the population at some point in their lives.
Migraines are more severe and intense than headaches, and may not respond to the usual over the counter remedies we use to clear a sore head. They are characterised by a sharp, pulsating pain at the front or side of the head, and may last far longer than an everyday headache (up to 72 hours). Sufferers may also have secondary migraine symptoms including nausea and extreme sensitivity to light.
Some people experience a forewarning of an attack with what's known as a migraine 'aura', before the full pain takes hold. Classic aura symptoms include confusion, visual fantasies such as flashing lights, stiff muscles, and pins and needles. Adding to the unpredictable nature of the condition, some auras do not develop into headaches. Here people experience a kind of disorientating migraine without the acute headaches.
Medical science doesn't have conclusive answers about the root causes of migraines, but it has been linked to the body's production of serotonin - the chemical responsible for controlling our mood and sense of wellbeing. Medical thinking has it that low serotonin levels can affect the blood vessels in the brain, causing migraines to develop. This is why drugs called Triptans are sometimes prescribed to help being migraine relief, as they act to control serotonin levels in the body.
Common painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen are also used to help bring migraine symptoms under control.
However, if you regularly take a particular painkiller in response to attacks, recent medical research has flagged up the risk of 'medication overuse'. This is where regular drugs could actually exacerbate rather than relieve the symptoms - even causing drug induced headaches to develop. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are concerned about this.
Rest and recuperation - preferably in a quiet, dark place can also help to combat the condition and restore calm and equilibrium.
Finally, it's good to be aware of some of the common triggers associated with migraine attacks, which include stress, low blood sugar levels from hunger; particular food and drink such as chocolate, alcohol and caffeine, and loud or vibrant stimuli.
Empathy and understanding for what migraine sufferers may be going through can also help. Being housebound or bed ridden for days in the grip of a persistent migraine is a grim experience, so a bit of TLC can go a long way to lightening the load.
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