Migraine headaches are painful and frustrating. 36 million Americans suffer from them, or 12% of the population. Yet they remain largely a mystery in terms of how they are triggered and how they should be treated.
Unfortunately I've been learning a little too much about migraine headaches recently, as my teenage son has been suffering from them. You'd think by now the medical profession would know everything there is to know and have an exact cure, but that certainly isn't the case.
Entire research studies and many books have been written on the subject, but hopefully my notes here will give you some insight if you're suffering or know someone who is.
What is a migraine?
A migraine is a type of headache. It may occur with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light. In many people, a throbbing pain is felt only on one side of the head. Some people who get migraines have warning symptoms, called an aura, before the actual headache begins. An aura is a group of symptoms, including vision changes. An aura is a warning sign that a bad headache is coming. (source: US National Library of Medicine)
What causes a migraine?
Migraines have many different causes, also called triggers. Unfortunately, triggers are numerous and vary widely depending on the person. Many people go for years or even a lifetime without knowing what causes their migraines. Here are some leading causes of migraines:
How do I determine what causes my migraines?
If you are a migraine sufferer, it is critical for you to keep a migraine journal. A migraine journal is a way for you to document the days leading up to a headache. By documenting activities and specific foods that were eaten, the hope is that you can determine what triggers your particular migraines. Here are some questions to answer:
How do I treat my migraines?
It turns out that prevention is a lot better tactic than treatment. In other words, it is best to try and stop the migraine from happening in the first place. The best approach is to ensure that you are living a healthy lifestyle. Ask yourself "am I doing everything possible in my power to live a healthy and balanced life so that hopefully these migraines can be prevented?"
Living a healthy and balanced life includes:
These kinds of adjustments will in many cases diminish or even cure migraines. You might say "but all of those things sound hard, and what if I did them and still have migraines?" The answer is yes, you might still have migraines, but good health is its own reward.
Don't jump straight to pescriptions
The medications doctors prescribe are potent and you run the risk of incurring potentially scary side-effects. For example, one common migraine prevention medication that doctors prescribe is called Topomax.
Let's look at its common side effects: vision problems, especially blurred vision, double vision, eye pain, or rapidly decreasing vision, burning, prickling, or tingling sensations, clumsiness or unsteadiness, confusion, continuous, uncontrolled back-and-forth or rolling eye movements, dizziness, drowsiness, eye redness, generalized slowing of mental and physical activity, increased eye pressure, memory problems, menstrual changes, menstrual pain, nervousness, speech or language problems, trouble in concentrating or paying attention, and unusual tiredness or weakness.
Less common side effects include abdominal or stomach pain, fever, chills, or sore throat, lessening of sensations or perception, loss of appetite, mood or mental changes, including aggression, agitation, apathy, irritability, and mental depression, red, irritated, or bleeding gums, and weight loss.
Rare side effects include blood in the urine, decrease in sexual performance or desire, difficult or painful urination, frequent urination, hearing loss, loss of bladder control, lower back or side pain, nosebleeds, pale skin, red or irritated eyes, ringing or buzzing in the ears, skin rash or itching, swelling, and trouble breathing.
Other prescription medications aren't any better. I know that you're suffering and just want a pill to make it better. But consider whether you're trading one set of problems for another. I know in the case of my son, even a little increase in dosage of the medication has aggravating side-effects. So we minimize prescriptions and emphasize healthy lifestyle changes. And more natural remedies.
What are some natural remedies?
The neurologist we are working with is great, because she is open and willing to try anything she or we have discovered that might help my son, including more natural remedies. You might say "natural remedies by definition are ones that don't have any scientific research behind them and are probably just placebos." This isn't the case at all. Consider the following remedies that actually have some well-tested, proven research behind them:
All of the above more natural remedies are much safer and in many cases just as effective as prescription medications without the horrible potential side-effects. I know that this sounds a bit too good to be true, but with so much potential benefit and little downside, these are all worth more of your time to research and understand better.
If living a healthy lifestyle and trying natural remedies don't work, then it does make sense to working with a doctor to look for help in prescription medication. As I mentioned above, the side-effects can offset their positive effects, but some people tolerate medication better than others. Some over the counter medications can help as well, but be careful there as well, since over-use can sometimes make migraines worse.
Despite all the research that has been done and all of the evidence that has been collected, there is no magic cure-all for migraines. People still suffer. Some have found a combination of remedies that work for them, but it is still a very individual journey and a painstaking process to try different things to see what works.
Speaking of process, it might be tempting to try everything you can at once, hoping that something helps. But if you can be more patient and try one thing at a time, you'll be able to better understand what might help and what might not.
In summary, first make changes to live a more well-balanced, healthy life. Then look to natural remedies, and as a last resort look to prescription medication. I wish you good luck in your own journey towards pain relief.