Migraine: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Triggers and More

“My migraines shut me down completely” says Saakshi, a 28-year old New Delhi resident. “I get migraines about once in six months and they usually begin with a slight throbbing behind my eye. If the pain continues after I take medicine, then I know I’m going to be confined to my bed for at least 3 days. I can’t move, I can’t stand the light, and I definitely cannot eat at that time.”

Saakshi’s situation is seen quite commonly amongst people who suffer from migraines. And as anyone with a migraine will tell you, this affliction is more than just a simple headache. According to the WHO, a migraine is a “primary headache disorder” that is often characterized by repeating episodes and becomes a lifelong condition. 

“The worst part for me is when the headache combines with the accompanying nausea,” says Saakshi. “That’s really when I start to feel sick and like I can’t handle anything. I just have to lock myself in a dark room and lay down the whole time. I can’t even bring myself to talk to anyone because it feels too hard.” 

Saakshi’s symptoms are typical of a migraine. Other people with migraines very often experience the following symptoms during an episode: 

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty with speech 
  • Sensitivity to light 
  • Throbbing headaches 
  • Numbness or tingling 
  • A temporary loss of vision 

By and large, migraines tend to affect women more than they affect men and are often misunderstood as simple headaches that can be fixed with a pill. However, a migraine is actually a neurological disorder that affects the quality of people’s lives. And very often, triggers for migraines are varied and can be traced back to a host of lights, sounds, smells, or physical activity. 

Migraines and Auras

Sometimes, people suffering from migraines report seeing an aura, usually before their migraine episode begins. Lasting from anywhere between 5 minutes to 60 minutes, an aura occurs for approximately 20% of the people who experience migraines and manifests with the following symptoms: 

  • Tingling or numb skin 
  • Flashes of lights, sparkles, or little dots 
  • Changes to your speech patterns 
  • A persistent ringing in your ears
  • Feeling “funny” or “strange” 
  • Seeing little jagged or wavy lines dancing in front of your eyes 
  • Vision blind spots 
  • Temporary loss of vision 

Owing to these symptoms, migraines can often be misinterpreted as a stroke or a seizure, but the headache (and other features, determined clinically by a physician)  is what usually puts those fears to rest. Which doesn’t make dealing with migraines any easier. 

Causes of Migraines

While it’s difficult to ascertain who may end up getting a migraine, certain risk factors do show up consistently while diagnosing and treating people. 

  1. Stress
    High levels of stress can definitely trigger painful and uncomfortable migraines. If you’ve been suffering from migraines, it may be worth your time to evaluate whether you need to manage your stress better.
  2. Genetics
    I’m convinced my mother gave me these migraines” complains Saakshi. “She used to have them all the time when I was younger. They’re better managed now, but she still gets them.”

    Saakshi makes an important point here about the role of genetics in migraines. According to the WHO, approximately 80% of people who get migraines have an immediate family member who also suffers from the same disorder.
  3. Gender
    Gender also plays a role in causing people migraines, since research indicates that more women than men tend to get them, and more often. “Not to reinforce a gender stereotype, but hormonal imbalances could be a cause behind more women getting hit with migraines” says Dr. Rachna Kucheria, Co-Founder of DocGenie.
  4. Smoking
    There’s no scenario where smoking leads to better health outcomes, but people with migraines should especially make concerted efforts to avoid smoking. “Active smokers should stop altogether, right away” says Dr. Kucheria. “It doesn’t help.”

Other triggers of migraines include sensitivity to certain foods, sensitivity to flashing lights, too much or sudden withdrawal from caffeine, excessive working habits, or even changes in the weather. 

Treatment of Migraines

Since migraines are a chronic disorder, the best that can be done for patients is to help them manage their episodes. 

“My doctor told me I should take my medicine as soon as I feel my migraine coming on” says Saakshi. “That does seem to help lately. I’ll do anything I need to do to make sure I’m not bed-ridden for three days at a time.” 

Every once in a while, doctors may also prescribe stronger medication if people experience intense migraines at a higher frequency, i.e. four or five times a month. “At that point, a migraine is truly interfering with your quality of life and daily activities,” says Dr. Kucheria. “For these patients, we end up prescribing medications that are taken regularly as a preventive care measure.” 

Migraine Management

Can migraines be eliminated or prevented? Not entirely. But they can be managed to make sure patients are able to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. 

While medications do help, doctors almost always advise patients to take a proactive role in managing their condition. “We recommend that patients keep a journal and track their migraines closely. Usually, there are patterns that repeat before each episode, and if we can recognise those patterns, we can manage the migraines a lot better” says Dr. Kucheria. 

While more advanced treatments for migraines do exist, lifestyle changes that include the right diet, hydration levels, and up to 8-9 hours of sleep a night – along with regular exercise and stress management go a long way in helping migraine patients lead fulfilling lives. 

If you or your family members are suffering from migraines and need some help, visit www.docgenie.in to find a specialist who can help.