Migraines are often described as a severe (and often unbearable) throbbing or pulsating pain in one or both sides of the head, often around the temples, front of the head or behind an eye. Approximately 15-20% of migraine headaches are accompanied by a sensory aura, which is a particular sensation that, in adults, precedes the actual headache pain (children sometimes get the aura at the same time as the headache).
An aura can present in the form of a variety of sensations such as suddenly smelling a certain smell, seeing spots or zigzags, feeling a twitch, excessive yawning, numbness or tingling in the face or one part of the body, or even weakness on one side of the body. Some migraine sufferers even crave certain foods, such as chocolate, as their aura.
Migraine symptoms vary from person to person however they typically include nausea, vomiting, double vision and an extreme sensitivity to light, sound or smells. Migraines can also be accompanied by a loss in memory, altered thinking capacity, and altered speech.
Migraines can last anywhere from an hour to, in extreme cases, several days. Most migraines are severe enough that they cannot be ‘worked through’ and once the headache has passed a ‘headache hangover’ is often felt, which is a feeling of extreme fatigue, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. Neck pain may or may not be present during or after a migraine headache.
Migraine headaches are often run in one’s family familial (familial). Being depressed can also increase your likelihood of suffering a migraine headache, as can lack of restorative sleep or having chronic sinus problems. Migraines are more common in women than in men.
Migraine triggers are not always known but some common food and drinks that may trigger migraines include certain red wines, cheeses, chocolate, excessive caffeine, pickled foods, foods containing monosodium glutatmate (MSG), citrus fruits and sourdough bread. Other common non-food related triggers include flickering lights, intense exercise, intense smells (such as perfume), weather changes (barometric changes), and menstruation cycles. Stress is an extremely common trigger of migraine headaches in many sufferers.
The physiology of Migraines is still being studied however it is accepted that there is an increased sensitivity in the brain to certain environmental triggers which then sets off a chemical chain of events in the brain. The migraine trigger causes a chemical release in the brain, which in turn affects the blood vessels of the brain, causing them to swell and release further chemicals. The chemicals released act as an irritant to the pain structures in the head and face including the trigeminal nerve and the area that it supplies, hence causing the headache. Altered levels of serotonin, which is an important brain chemical that regulates pain and mood, have also been associated with migraines. It has also been shown that during a migraine headache there is an altered blood flow to certain parts of the brain’s cortex such as the occipital (visual) cortex.