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Posted Apr 01 2010 12:00am

          Headaches are really a ‘pain’.  Almost everyone gets them.  You may have experienced one with the flu, with a cold or even with a hangover.  Some people get pain in the temples and the back of the head from a busy day at work – referred to as a tension headache.  Most of these headaches produce a dull pain around the front, top and sides of the head.  But a migraine is different.  Migraine sufferers are generally very sensitive to light and sound during an attack and this is why it has been traditional to lie down in a quiet and dark room until an attack passes.  In addition to symptoms associated with the head, migraines can also be accompanied by a variety of other symptoms including nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, a pale facial color and cold hands and feet.  Both of my sons have experienced migraine headaches and they can be quite disabling – they have had to skip school, sports and other activities until the headache subsides.  There can also be trigger factors associated with migraines.  Doctors define a migraine headache as a recurrent headache that has additional symptoms and if you have migraines, you are not alone.  Experts estimate that up to 10% of teens and young adults in the United States get migraines.  Before age 10, an equal number of boys and girls get migraines.  But after age 12, during and after puberty, migraines affect girls three times more often than boys.

           Migraines are more common than you think.  More than 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches.  According to the National Headache Foundation, only about fifty percent of sufferers ever seek medical treatment from their doctor.  About one out of every five people who suffer from a migraine will have what is known as a ‘classical migraine’ which is preceded by what is referred to as an ‘aura’.  Auras are generally visual, but can also be auditory and can include such things as pins and needles and an altered sense of taste and smell.  However, most often patients experience zigzag patterns of brightly colored flashing lights, which normally begins in the center of their field of vision and then moves outwards.  Sometimes they experience a blind spot in their field of vision.  An aura normally lasts anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes and is followed immediately by the onset of a headache.  Even when there is no aura (in about half of all sufferers) there will be a warning of the onset of a migraine which can precede the arrival of a headache by anything from a matter of hours to several days.  The warning signs will include irritability, tiredness, depression and sometimes a feeling of euphoria or a craving for either sweet or salty foods.  Sufferers will quickly begin to recognize their own particular migraine headache symptoms and will know when an attack is approaching.

          Not all scientists agree about what causes migraines.  Many believe that a migraine is caused by narrowing and expanding of the blood vessels in the brain.  There are also theories that the level of certain chemicals in the brain may affect the nerve system that regulates pain.  Whatever the cause, experts do agree that different things trigger (set off) migraines in people who have them.  For some people, eating certain foods brings on a migraine.  Others find that sleeping too long (or too little) provokes an  attack.  Some common migraine triggers are stress, menstruation, skipping meals, too much caffeine, certain foods (alcohol, cheese, pizza, chocolate, ice cream, fatty or fried food, lunch meats, hot dogs, yogurt, aspartame, or anything with MSG, a seasoning often used in Asian foods), sudden changes in sleep patterns, changes in hormone levels, smoking, weather changes and travel.  Experts believe that the likelihood of getting migraines is inherited. If one of your parents gets migraines, you have a greater chance of having these types of headaches than someone who doesn’t have a family history of migraines.  Even though both of my sons have experienced these headaches, I have never had a migraine.  However, when I did a little digging into the family history, it turned out that my mother had frequent migraine headaches which she outgrew at age 35.

          The most commonly prescribed migraine medications include triptans which are effective in relieving not only the pain of a headache, but also nausea and sensitivity to light, ergots which are similar to triptans but less expensive, NSAIDs for mild cases and opiates which are used for patients unable to tolerate triptans or ergots.  This class of drug is highly addictive and should only be used when absolutely necessary.  A growing number of people these days are turning away from traditional migraine medicines and are looking for information about alternative treatments for migraines.  In addition to the many natural health remedies being tried, one popular preventive approach is that of biofeedback.  Biofeedback involves teaching people to control the physical processes of the body which can lead to stress in an effort to either prevent migraine attacks or to reduce the severity of migraine headaches.  Biofeedback also involves the use of self-hypnosis to control muscle contractions and the swelling of blood vessels.

          The best way to prevent migraine headaches is to learn what trigger factors set off the headache and then try to avoid these triggers.  Take a break from activities that provoke a migraine, such as using the computer for a long time.  If you know that certain foods trigger your migraines, try to avoid them.  Some people find that cutting back on caffeine intake or drinking a lot of water can help prevent migraines.  Make a plan for all the things you have to do – especially during stressful times like final exams – so you don’t feel overwhelmed when things pile up.  I remember my oldest son had a migraine one year during final week.  Regular exercise can also reduce stress and make you feel better.  If your doctor has prescribed medication, always have a dose on hand.  Then if you feel a migraine coming, take your medicine.  You can also try lying down in a quiet, dark room until the pain starts to go away.  Because migraines are so different for different people, it helps to keep a headache diary and get to know what provokes migraines in your own case.  The more you understand your headaches, the better prepared you can be to fight them.

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