A migraine headache is a form of vascular headache. Migraine headache is caused by vasodilatation (enlargement of blood vessels) that causes the release of chemicals from nerve fibers that coil around the large arteries of the brain.
Enlargement of these blood vessels stretches the nerves that coil around them and causes the nerves to release chemicals. The chemicals cause inflammation, pain, and further enlargement of the artery.
The increasing enlargement of the arteries magnifies the pain.
What is Migraine Headache ?
A migraine is a type of headache that typically causes intense, throbbing pain usually in one area of the head. People can experience migraines once a year to multiple times a week. A person is considered to have chronic migraines if they experience 15 or more headache days a month with eight of those days involving migraine headaches.
Migraines typically first start during a person’s teens to early twenties, but they can begin anytime from early childhood to late-adulthood.
A migraine usually has three stages: the period leading up to the headache (known as the premonitory or prodromal phase), the migraine itself (the headache phase), and the period following the headache (known as the postdromal phase).
The premonitory phase can start from several hours up to several days before the headache appears. In this phase, affected individuals can experience extreme tiredness (fatigue), concentration problems, and muscle stiffness in the neck. A wide variety of additional signs and symptoms can occur including excessive yawning, food cravings, irritability, depression, sensitivity to light, and nausea. About one-third of people with migraine experience a temporary pattern of neurological symptoms called an aura.
An aura typically develops gradually over a few minutes and lasts between 5 and 60 minutes. Auras commonly include temporary visual changes such as blind spots (scotomas), flashing lights, and zig-zagging lines of color. Additional features of aura can include numbness, difficulty with speech and language, episodes of extreme dizziness (vertigo), and double vision. During an aura, affected individuals might experience abnormal sensations including tingling or numbness, usually of the hands or mouth. An aura usually starts within one hour of the start of a migraine. In some cases, an aura can occur without a subsequent migraine.
In the headache phase, the pain may last from a few hours to a few days. Affected individuals tend to experience nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound in addition to headache. Some have changes in their vision or sensitivity to odors and touch.
The postdromal phase usually lasts a few hours but can linger for more than a day. In this phase, the headache pain is gone but individuals can experience fatigue, drowsiness, decreased energy, concentration problems, irritability, nausea, or sensitivity to light. Affected individuals may also have brief episodes of head pain when moving their head.
There are many migraine disorders that usually include additional signs and symptoms. For example, familial hemiplegic migraine and sporadic hemiplegic migraine are characterized by migraine with associated temporary weakness that affects one side of the body (hemiparesis). Additionally, cyclic vomiting syndrome is a migraine disorder usually found in children that causes episodes of nausea and vomiting in addition to headaches.
Migraine attacks commonly activate the sympathetic nervous system in the body.
The sympathetic nervous system is often thought of as the part of the nervous system that controls primitive responses to stress and pain, the so-called “fight or flight” response, and this activation causes many of the symptoms associated with migraine attacks; for example, the increased sympathetic nervous activity in the intestine causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Symptoms of Migraine Headaches:
Migraine headaches usually are described as an intense, throbbing or pounding pain that involves one temple. (Sometimes the pain is located in the forehead, around the eye, or at the back of the head).
The unilateral headaches typically change sides from one attack to the next. (In fact, unilateral headaches that always occur on the same side should alert the doctor to consider a secondary headache, for example, one caused by a brain tumor).
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, facial pallor, cold hands, cold feet, and sensitivity to light and sound commonly accompany migraine headaches. As a result of this sensitivity to light and sound, migraine sufferers usually prefer to lie in a quiet, dark room during an attack. A typical attack lasts between 4 and 72 hours.
The Causes of Migraine Headaches
Migraines are thought to occur when blood flow in the brain is altered and certain nerves in the brain send abnormal pain signals throughout the head. These signals trigger the release of various brain chemicals in the brain, which leads to inflammation, particularly of blood vessels and the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord (meninges). This inflammation causes many of the signs and symptoms of a migraine, including the throbbing pain, nausea, and sensory sensitivities. However, it is unclear what leads to the abnormal nerve signaling.
Auras are thought to be caused by abnormal nerve signaling and associated changes in blood flow that spread across the brain. Additionally, the release of large amounts of the neurotransmitter glutamate is thought to contribute to aura. The causes of these imbalances are unclear.
Migraines result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, some of which have not been identified. Variations in many genes have been found to be associated with the development of migraines with or without aura. These genes likely have varying degrees of impact among affected individuals. Most of the associated genes are active in the muscles that surround blood vessels within the brain. These genes help regulate blood flow by controlling the narrowing and expansion of blood vessels. Many variants likely disrupt blood flow in the brain, which can contribute to developing migraines. Changes in blood flow in the brain or in the balance between vascular injury and repair (vascular homeostasis) also likely underlie the increased risk of stroke in people with migraines. Variants in genes that regulate levels of glutamate or the activity (excitability) of certain nerve cells in the brain have also been found in people with migraines.
Nongenetic factors also play a critical role in developing a migraine. Migraine headaches can be triggered by skipping meals, caffeine or alcohol overuse, certain foods, poor sleep, emotional stress, hormonal changes, or minor head trauma. Excessive use of pain relief medications can also trigger or worsen migraines.
Migraine Headaches Treated:
Acetaminophen reduces pain and fever by acting on pain centers in the brain. Acetaminophen is well tolerated and generally is considered easier on the stomach than NSAIDs. However, acetaminophen can cause severe liver damage in high (toxic) doses or if used on a regular basis over extended periods of time. In individuals who regularly consume moderate or large amounts of alcohol, acetaminophen can cause serious damage to the liver in lower doses that usually are not toxic. Acetaminophen also can damage the kidneys when taken in large doses. Therefore, acetaminophen should not be taken more frequently or in larger doses than recommended on the package label.
Examples of non-aspirin NSAIDs are ibuprofen (Advil, Nuprin, Motrin IB, and Medipren) and naproxen (Aleve). Some NSAIDs are available by prescription only. Prescription NSAIDs are usually prescribed to treat arthritis and other inflammatory conditions such as bursitis, tendonitis, etc. The difference between OTC and prescription NSAIDs usually is the amount of the active ingredient contained in each pill. For example, OTC naproxen (Aleve) contains 220 mg of naproxen per pill, whereas prescription naproxen (Naprosyn) contains 375 or 500 mg of naproxen per pill.
NSAIDs relieve pain by reducing the inflammation that causes the pain (they are called nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs or NSAIDs because they are different from corticosteroids such as prednisone, prednisolone, and cortisone which also reduce inflammation). Corticosteroids, though valuable in reducing inflammation, have predictable and potentially serious side effects, especially when used long-term. Their full effects also require hours or days. NSAIDs do not have the same side effects that corticosteroids have and their onset of action is faster.
Aspirin, Aleve, Motrin, and Advil all are NSAIDs and are similarly effective in relieving pain and fever. The main difference between aspirin and non-aspirin NSAIDs is their effect on platelets, the small particles in blood that cause blood clots to form. Aspirin prevents the platelets from forming blood clots. Therefore, aspirin can increase bleeding by preventing blood from clotting though it also can be used therapeutically to prevent clots from causing heart attacks and strokes. The non-aspirin NSAIDs also have antiplatelet effects, but their antiplatelet action does not last as long as aspirin, i.e. hours rather than days.
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Home Remedies for Migraine Relief
Aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine also are available combined in OTC analgesics for the treatment of headaches including migraine. Examples of such combination analgesics are Pain-aid, Excedrin, Fioricet, and Fiorinal.
Finding an effective analgesic or analgesic combination often is a process of trial and error because individuals respond differently to different analgesics. In general, a person should use the analgesic that has worked in the past. This will increase the likelihood that an analgesic will be effective and decrease the risk of side effects.
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