The World Health Organisation lists migraines among the 20 most disabling conditions, they’re also the cause of 25 million sick day’s every day in the UK – but do you have any idea how to ease them?
This Migraine Awareness Week we look at the causes and treatments for migraines and provide some tips on how to prevent them.
Dr Sue Lipscombe, a headache specialist at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton is speaking on behalf of Syndol Headache Relief, and migraine sufferer explains: “Suffering from migraines can have a huge impact on a person’s life. Often, migraines are thought of as just bad headaches but in reality, migraines are a condition in their own right and are much more painful and debilitating than headaches alone. Those suffering from migraines may need time off work with attacks, struggle with relationships and can even feel depressed as a result of the condition. There are a number of a different headache and migraine ‘types’, many of which are very common.”
Dr Alexandra Phelan, Pharmacy2u.co.uk explains: “Usually one side of the head experiences a throbbing pain, which will often feel worse if the sufferer tries to move, and in some cases can be completely debilitating. This is commonly coupled with symptoms of nausea, light sensitivity and vomiting. Some patients will experience an ‘aura’ before a migraine – usually a set of visual symptoms such as flashing or flickering lights, numbness, dizziness, feeling weak, changes to speech or hearing or other neurological symptoms. This can last for up to an hour before the onset of a migraine.”
Dr Lipscombe says; “Migraines affect 18% of women, 6% of men and 10% of children and are often genetic but certain situations can trigger an attack. Migraines have a huge impact on the sufferer, who may be unable to work on frequent occasions, as well as bringing disruption to family life and general enjoyment. Migraines can be extremely debilitating and cause distress and worry.”
What causes migraines?
It’s not actually clear what causes a migraine, their onset appears to be linked to temporary abnormal brain activity. It is thought that some people are genetically more susceptible to having migraines, and that they are often triggered by:
- Alcohol consumption
- Poor sleep
- Hormone changes (in women)
- Environmental factors, such as changes in temperature or bright flickering lights
Dr Lipscombe says: “Stress, a lack of sleep, too much sleep, travel, dehydration, skipping meals, certain smells, hormonal changes and even alcohol can be triggers for a migraine.”
The best things to help with migraine relief
During a migraine attack, some people find relief from simply lying in a darkened room. Taking over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol can also help to ease migraine symptoms, but should be taken during the early onset of an attack rather than later, as it could be too late for the medicine to take effect. If painkillers don’t work for you, consult your GP, who may advise taking triptans along with painkillers. Triptans are a type of medication specifically made to combat a migraine.
Home remedies for migraines
There are steps you can take at home to help prevent migraine triggers, depending on what they are. Relaxation techniques may help if stress tends to trigger your migraines; while getting into a good, regular sleep pattern could aid you if tiredness is your trigger. When you do experience an attack, try applying a cold compress or making a hot water bottle. A hot or cold shower can also help relieve the symptoms.
Is there such a thing as a migraine diet?
There isn’t a specific diet to combat migraines. Those who are susceptible should make sure they have a balanced diet and regular meals. Blood sugar levels should be kept stable, as fluctuations can trigger an attack. Because of this, it’s recommended sufferers don’t skip breakfast, drink 1.5 to two litres of water daily, eat at least half an hour before exercise and avoid excessively cold or hot drinks. As migraines are complex, some people may be affected by certain food additives such as MSG, aspartame, nitrates and citric acid.
If you are a frequent migraine sufferer, it is worth keeping a food diary to see if there are any obvious dietary triggers so may be able to avoid these in the future.
Spotting the onset of a migraine
Migraines can be debilitating and distressing, and migraine medication to halt them in their tracks can be effective. However, some regular sufferers may benefit from a preventative approach by taking a daily medicine to prevent the onset of migraines.
Dr Lipscombe says: “When it comes to migraine headaches, the trick is knowing how to spot the early warning signs. Many people don’t realise they are entering a migraine attack until they’re well into the main attack stage and take pain relief too late. Keep a diary of your feelings, symptoms, even any food cravings on the day you experience a migraine and it may help you to recognise it sooner and take earlier action.
“Keep to a sleep routine. Many common migraines and headaches can be triggered by a disruption of your sleep pattern – too much sleep can be as detrimental to health as can too little. Keep to a routine where possible, including the weekends.”
Dr Guy Leschziner, Consultant Neurologist at London Bridge Hospital shares his expert advice this Migraine Awareness Week.
Treatments are either to stop a headache when it starts or to prevent headaches from coming on. If migraines are relatively frequent, the use of drugs to abort attacks is advisable, ranging from simple paracetamol or aspirin to a group of drugs called triptans.
However, regular painkillers, in the long run, can result in a form of a headache called a medication-overuse headache, so if the migraines are very frequent or very debilitating, preventative treatment is therefore recommended.
This usually involves regular medication but some patients obtain benefits from injectable treatments such as botulinum toxin injections to the scalp or blocking nerves by injections of local anaesthetic.
Dr Guy Leschziner offers these top three tips on how to prevent migraines:
- Painkiller – take a painkiller as soon as you feel a headache coming on – it is easier to stop a migraine developing than it is to treat once established.
- Sleep – sleep if you can – sleep often improves migraine headaches.
- Talk to your doctor – if your headaches are frequent, don’t be tempted to keep on popping painkillers, talk to your doctor about other options.