Migraine headaches are a neurological disorder most commonly manifested as pulsating headaches. These are more than just a headache as they can have debilitating effects on an individual. Usually, they are accompanied by an increased sensitivity to light, smell, and sound and nausea and vomiting.
According to the World Health Organization, migraine headaches are among the 20 most disabling medical conditions worldwide.
The headache is recurring, and some individuals can speculate its occurrence by experiencing a series of sensory and visual changes such as visual disturbances, zigzag lines, and flashing lights, among many others. This type of headache is experienced by about 20% of people suffering from migraines.
Migraines are more prevalent in women than men, affecting 3 out of 4 women commonly striking in between the ages of 20 and 45.
Possible Causes of Migraine
There are no definitive causes behind the occurrence of migraine in an individual. However, it can be triggered by certain factors that tend to bring about changes in the levels of the neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are largely responsible for the sound functioning of the brain.
The factors that can engender a migraine headache include:
- Familial migraines – About 75% of all migraine sufferers have a family history of migraines.
- Certain food items – These include cheese, red wine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), chocolate among many others.
- Hormonal changes – The different phases of reproductive life, namely, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, and the use of oral contraceptive pills that change the levels of estrogen and progesterone in the female body are also associated with migraine.
- Excessive stress can lead to a migraine attack.
- Weather changes, such as changes in pressure, heat, and temperature, can induce a migraine attack.
- Drinking alcoholic beverages such as red wine and beer are also recognized as a possible cause in some individuals.
- Dehydration can plummet the levels of fluid in the body and induce a migraine headache in specific individuals.
- A change in routine including sleep patterns and eating patterns is identified as a possible cause.
Keeping a watch on your triggers can help you determine the actual cause behind your headaches.
Types and Symptoms of Migraines
Symptoms tend to vary from one person to another. People often experience sensory warning signs, such as blind spots, flashes of light, increased sensitivity to light and sound, tingling in the arms and legs, nausea, and vomiting.
Migraine can be categorized into different types and exhibited accordingly:
1. Migraine Without Aura – It is the most common type of migraine that starts without a sign and lasts between 4 and 72 hours. The symptoms include:
- Throbbing pain on one side of the head
- Photophobia (light sensitivity)
- Phonophobia (sound sensitivity)
- Headache that aggravates on physical exertion
2. Migraine With Aura – Such headaches are marked by classical warning signals shortly before the onset of the attack. These include visual and sensory interferences such as:
- Seeing zigzag lines
- Blind spots
- Seeing flashing lights
- Speech disturbance
- Tingling or numbness in the body
- Loss of sensation
- Feeling dizzy
- Weakness that might last for about 72 hours
3. Migraine Without Headache – This is also known as silent migraine. This type of migraine does not involve a headache. Although there is no headache, all the symptoms and migraine aura can be experienced by the individual.
Diagnosis of Migraine
Because there is no test or a biomarker to affirm the diagnosis of migraine, your doctor will evaluate your case based on the symptoms you are experiencing. Your doctor will ask questions pertaining to the experienced headache such as:
- Possible triggers
- Medications are taken
- Family history
- Typical symptoms of migraine headache including the ones experienced in an aura
Your doctor might prescribe some tests in order to rule out the possibility of any other underlying cause.
Standard Treatments for Migraine
Your doctor will likely prescribe you standard medications for migraines based on various factors such as:
- Medical history and overall health
- Endurance towards specific medications or therapies
- Severity of headache
- Frequency of occurrence
Mostly, the treatment plan is aimed at curtailing the presence of factors that act as possible triggers and cause a migraine attack. This includes prescribing conventional medications, introducing dietary changes, advising biofeedback training, and incorporating ways to manage stress.
Managing Your Migraine Through Natural Ways
Besides following the standard treatment, you can help avert an impending migraine attack by incorporating some natural strategies:
1. Avoid Food Triggers
Certain foods, beverages, and additives can trigger a headache in susceptible individuals. Identify your triggers and try to avoid their consumption. Some of the worst triggers include alcoholic beverages, aspartame, nitrates, monosodium glutamate, and caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee, or other carbonated colas.
Some common triggers to avoid include:
2. Get a Massage
Massaging the head helps ease migraine headaches as it blocks pain signals sent to the brain. It also boosts serotonin activity and stimulates certain serotonin receptors, thereby reducing the symptoms and frequency of migraines.
- Gently massage your head with your first two fingers in a circular motion. While massaging, keep in mind that there are pressure points, such as the base of the skull, middle of the forehead (between the eyebrows), and corners of the eyes, that when pressed correctly help relieve pain.
- Alternatively, heat 2 tablespoons of sesame oil. Mix in a ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon powder and cardamom powder. Apply this mixture on your forehead and massage. Leave it on for a few hours before washing it off.
Repeat either of these remedies as needed. Also, regular massage will help reduce the frequency and duration of migraines.
3. Do Yoga
There is nothing new about yoga as an alternative therapy to manage chronic pain. Yoga as an ancient practice involves combining varied postures and breathing techniques to encourage healthy living.
A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Yoga supported the use of yoga as an adjunct therapy to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches in patients with migraine.
Yoga is a side-effect-free method to fight migraine. Incorporating these simple yoga postures for a few minutes every day will help prepare you better for a looming migraine attack:
- Hastapadasana (Standing Forward Bend)
- Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
- Shishuasana (Child’s Pose)
- Marjariasana (Cat Stretch)
- Paschimottanasana (Two-Legged Forward Bend)
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
- Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
- Shavasana (Corpse Pose)
4. Practice the Biofeedback Technique
Biofeedback and relaxation training is the most accepted alternative therapy, combined with medication, to control an existing headache and reduce the chances of an impending headache.
Biofeedback teaches individuals to control the functions of their autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. These functions include heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, muscle tension, and brainwave activity.
It typically yields a 45% to 60% reduction in headache frequency and severity in combination with standard treatments. Its effectiveness has stood the test of time and has been researched as a therapeutic cure for about 25 years.
Individuals learn to control these functions by observing monitoring devices and reproducing desired behavior. Relaxation techniques are also used to control these bodily functions. Relaxation techniques include progressive relaxation exercises, yoga, transcendental meditation, or simply focusing on an image of quiet, rest, and solitude.
To successfully treat patients with biofeedback, the appropriate method must be selected. Patients with migraine may be helped with skin temperature feedback, but the combination of electromyographic (EMG) and temperature feedback training is preferred for most headache patients.
5. Try Acupressure
Pressing these particular points, which are referred to as acupoints, can encourage blood circulation and help release muscle tension.
A study published in 2017 indicated that acupressure treatment can decrease migraine-related nausea but cannot relieve pain or enhance the quality of life in patients suffering from chronic migraine with aura.
Pressing on the pressure LI-4 point, also known as Hegu, can provide relief from headaches. This point is located between the index finger and base of your thumb.
- Using your right thumb and index finger, locate the pressure point LI-4 on your left hand.
- Firmly press this point for 5 minutes in a circular motion. Do not be harsh.
- Repeat the technique on the other hand.
6. Apply an Ice Pack
Using an ice pack is perhaps the most popular home remedy to get rid of migraine and tension headaches. It has a numbing effect that alleviates pain.
A study conducted in 2013 supported the use of a frozen neck wrap to reduce the headache associated with migraines. The study involved applying the frozen neck wrap at the beginning of the migraine headache to target the carotid arteries at the neck to curtail the experienced pain in the subjects.
- Wrap a few ice cubes in a clean towel and place it on your temples, forehead, and/or the back of your neck for 10 to 15 minutes. Repeat as needed.
7. Relax with Essential Oils
The anti-inflammatory property of peppermint essential oil can have a soothing effect on the nerves. Plus, it has antispasmodic and calming effects.
- Simply drink peppermint tea sweetened with honey. Repeat as needed.
- You can also massage each of your temples with one drop of peppermint essential oil or a combination of peppermint and lavender oils. Leave it on for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Do these a few times a day until you get relief.
- You can also try alternating hot and cold compresses for about 15 minutes, as needed. For better results, add lavender essential oils to the water for the compress.
Making some additions to your diet can help stop a migraine headache in its tracks:
1. Chew Ginger
Ginger blocks prostaglandins, which are chemicals that promote muscle contractions, impact hormones, and regulate inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain. Most nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), too, work by reducing the production of these chemicals.
- Drink ginger tea a few times throughout the day until you get relief. Make sure to drink it at the onset of your headache. You can look for a ginger tea recipe here.
- Simply chewing on a piece of raw ginger root will also help treat the problem and relieve symptoms such as nausea and digestive distress.
2. Up Your Magnesium Intake
Magnesium plays a crucial role in various physiological processes such as calcium absorption.
It has been reported in studies that people suffering from a migraine attack either suffer from a magnesium deficiency or have considerably low levels of magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is also linked to menstruation-induced migraines.
- Consume nuts, cereals, mackerel, pumpkin seeds, avocado, black beans, dried figs, dark chocolates, and leafy vegetables to derive magnesium from food sources.
3. Use Spices such as Cayenne Pepper and Clove
Cayenne pepper helps stimulate circulation and improve blood flow. Plus, it contains capsaicin, a compound that works as a natural painkiller.
- Mix a ½ to 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper in 1 cup of warm water.
- Optionally, add some lemon juice and honey to the solution to improve its taste and enhance its health benefits.
- Drink it as needed.
Clove has a soothing effect and works as an anti-inflammatory agent due to its antioxidant content, primarily flavonoids.
- You can either inhale clove oil or rub it on your forehead or neck for relief from headaches. Alternatively, you can chew a clove or add it to your food preparations.
4. Drink Chamomile Tea
When dealing with migraines, you’ll get the best results by using German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). So, when purchasing this herb, look for the label that says “German chamomile.
- Steep 2-3 teaspoons of dried chamomile flowers in 1 cup of hot water for a few minutes. You can also add some lemon juice and honey. Strain the liquid and drink this tea three or four times a day for relief from migraine symptoms.
- Alternatively, prepare a herbal tea by steeping equal quantities of chamomile, horehound, and meadowsweet in 1 cup of hot water for at least 5 minutes. Strain the liquid and drink it. Repeat as needed.
5. Take Feverfew
Feverfew is another effective home remedy for migraines that has been used for centuries. The herb contains a compound called parthenolide, which relieves spasms in smooth muscle tissue and prevents inflammation. It also neutralizes prostaglandins that influence pain signals, thereby reducing pain.
- Prepare a herbal tea by steeping 1 teaspoon each of dried peppermint and feverfew leaves in 1 cup of hot water for 30 minutes. Strain the liquid and drink this tea a few times throughout the day. Continue until the pain subsides.
- You can also eat 2-3 fresh feverfew leaves daily or take dried leaf capsules (50 to 100 mg daily). Consult your doctor before taking a supplement.
6. Include Vitamin B Supplements
A study published in Nephrology reports that supplementing with a high dose of vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, can help keep migraine-induced headaches at bay. A reduced incidence of headaches was observed when a daily dose of 400 mg was administered for a month.
A study conducted among pediatric and adult patients suffering from migraine highlighted the significant synergistic impact of riboflavin supplementation on the duration and number of headaches. Apart from vitamin B2, other B vitamins such as B6, B9, and B12 can help prevent migraine headaches.
- Eat foods rich in riboflavin such as green leafy vegetables, organ meats, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Consult your doctor for vitamin B supplements.
6. Drink a Cup of Coffee
A cup of strong coffee can help reduce migraine headache symptoms. It contains caffeine that restricts blood vessels and blocks certain receptors that could be causing the migraine.
To increase its effectiveness, add a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice as it counteracts the effects of acidic diets that contribute to cyclic headaches.
7. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration can trigger a headache, even the ones in migraine, by causing a loss of fluids in the brain and impairing its function. Drinking adequate amounts of water can help prevent a headache caused by dehydration.
It is mandatory to keep a check on your water intake to avoid headaches induced by dehydration.
- Make sure that you drink enough water to stay hydrated. You can replace lost fluids and electrolytes by using oral rehydration solutions in severe cases.
Migraine attacks can be experienced several times a week to once a year.
The general pattern of migraine headaches goes through 4 phases:
- Prodromal or Premonitory Stage: This stage is marked by the symptoms that lead to the headache, including mood swings, exhaustion, irritability, food cravings, a stiff neck, and constipation. Frequent yawning may also occur 48 hours prior to a migraine attack.
- Aura: Some people might experience a phase of reversible disturbance in vision and senses preceding the impending headache. This temporary phase is called the “aura.” This phase evolves gradually and lasts for about an hour. It is marked by periods of confusion, speech disturbance, and seeing zigzag lines, flashing lights, and black spots, among many others.
- Headache Phase: This phase is manifested in the form of a headache along with vomiting, sensitivity to light and sounds, and nausea that may last anywhere between 4 and 72 hours.
- Resolution or Postdromal stage: This is the stage where the headache has resolved or is gradually disappearing but the individual experiences fatigue, lethargy, or mood swings from the pain and exhaustion of the previous stages.
It may take a few days to recover completely from the physical drain caused by a migraine attack.
Complications of Migraine
Migraines may result in complications in rare cases, which may include the following:
- Chronic migraines – If a person is experiencing a headache for at least 15 days in a month, you may be suffering from chronic migraine.
- Migrainous infarction – The aura symptoms last for more than an hour, which can lead to a loss of blood supply to the brain, resulting in a stroke.
- Persistent aura without infarction – The aura symptoms can last for more than a week and resemble a stroke without any bleeding or tissue damage in the brain.
- Overuse of pain relievers can lead to abdominal problems such as stomach ulcers.
- Migraines can lead to mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorder.
When to See a Doctor
Aside from the symptoms of migraine, it is necessary to seek medical review if you are experiencing a headache that:
- Is unlike your usual headaches and is accompanied by the classical symptoms of migraine
- Restricts your sleep and is intense enough to disrupt your sleep
- Increases in intensity by physical exercise
- Is recurrent and is starting to affect the quality of your life.
- Worsens over time and becomes severe (seek immediate medical help)
Migraine is marked by throbbing headaches, nausea, vomiting, and an “aura’’ in some cases. It is a complex condition that cannot be prevented. However, you can keep track of the factors that are likely to trigger a migraine attack.
In addition to standard treatments, you can try alternative therapies such as yoga, biofeedback technique, and meditation. Make sure to get enough sleep, eat a diet low in carbohydrates and high in protein, and drink plenty of water to minimize the frequency of migraine-induced headaches.
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