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What Are Migrane Headaches

Updated on September 14, 2008

An Introduction To Migraine Headaches

In the United States today about 10% of the population, or some 28 million Americans, suffer from migraine headaches. They are about three times as common in women as they are in men and are also often seen in children and adolescents. Despite the fact that these often debilitating headaches are so common almost half of all sufferers treat themselves and do not seek the advice or help of their doctor.

We do not know exactly what causes migraines although for many years it has been thought that they result from a dilation of the blood vessels within the head. Although this may well be one part of the cause, today it is believed to be more likely that there is another explanation and many researchers think that they might be the result of a genetic disorder which affects the way in which certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, interact with our nerve cells.

Migraines come in two different forms. The first form is referred to as a classical migraine in which the headache is normally preceded by an 'aura'. This aura is often experienced some 15 to 30 minutes before the arrival of the headache and can include such things as flashing lights, zigzag patterns which flash across your field of view, blind spots which tend to start small and grow in size, tingling in an arm or leg and coldness of the hands and feet. Once the headache arrives the aura usually disappears and is replaced by sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and sometimes vomiting. The second form of migraine, which is the most common form, occurs without the preceding aura.

Just as we do not really know what causes a migraine so too are we somewhat in the dark about just what can trigger an attack. There are however certain things which do seem to make a migraine more likely.

For example, both a lack of sleep and getting too much sleep both seem to be important triggers. So too is eating certain types of food such as cheese or skipping meals altogether. Hormones also play a part and are believed to influence not only the onset of an attack but also its severity. This is evidenced by the fact that more women than men experience migraines and by research which has found a connection between the contraceptive pill, which contains the hormone estrogen, and migraine headaches.

But possible triggers do not stop there and even simple everyday activities such as climbing a flight of steps or other forms of physical activity can sometimes bring on an attack. And so the list goes on including such things as exposure to loud noise or flickering lights or too extreme heat or cold. And, as with many other forms of headache, stress is also an important trigger.

Luckily today there is an increasing range of medication available and while many of the traditional treatments have proved less than wholly effective modern drugs do seem to be getting on top of the problem. The secret however when it comes to migraine headaches is not simply to suffer in silence but to seek professional treatment advice from your doctor.

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