Understanding migraines

Everyone has heard of migraines, but a person may not know if she has actually experienced one. Essentially, migraine is a primary headache, but there is no way to tell if a headache is primary or secondary without an exam. Secondary headaches are from concussions playing football or from a specific cause.

“A diagnosis for migraine is a diagnosis of exclusion, because there is not a blood test or a brain scan that can be done to definitively tell that you have a migraine,” said Cathy Glaser, president and co-founder of the Migraine Research Foundation. “An important takeaway is that migraine is not just a bad headache; it is a neurological disease.”

It is fairly easy to suspect migraine.

“Migraine comes with head pain and associated symptoms like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to touch, light, and smell,” said Glaser.

A person with migraine can have one or multiple symptoms, and unfortunately, often gets accustomed to it.

“Migraine is not curable, so that means that you may end up having this horrendous pain periodically throughout much of your life,” said Glaser. It does not make the situation better, but sufferers should know they are not alone.

“Migraine is extremely prevalent, and we estimate that 36 million people in this country suffer from migraine and 10 percent of all school-aged children, which is a huge number of people,” said Glaser.

What causes the disease is not understood.

“The real answer is funding, research, and not finding a magic pill that does not exist,” said Glaser. A good first step is to make sure that you are identified as having a migraine and not something else.

“If your migraine symptoms are affecting your life to an extent that you determine they are interfering with your enjoyment of life or being able to do your job or take care of your child, or if your child is missing school as a result of them, it is essential to go to a headache specialist and get diagnosed properly,” said Glaser. Getting diagnosed is not as common as you would imagine, given the alarming statistics.

“Probably 50 percent of the 36 million Americans never get diagnosed, and many of them are making themselves worse by self-treating, because even the use of over-the-counter medication can make your headaches worse,” said Glaser.

Have strategies in mind for when you experience migraine.

“There are lots of lifestyle things you can do to treat headaches, but medicine is the best way to control them if they are really bad,” said Glaser. There are three kinds of treatments.

“There is abortive, which is used when you get the attack to try to stop or control it; preventive for people who get frequent headaches, and they take medications daily to lessen the duration, frequency, and intensity if not prevent headaches; and complementary, which are lifestyle things like staying on a schedule,” said Glaser. This means being consistent in your habits.

“Do not miss meals, and eat at pretty much the same time every day; go to bed and wake up at the same time; and stay hydrated, because drinking a lot of water ensures that you do not get dehydrated or overheated, which are common triggers for attacks,” said Glaser.

It is also wise to keep moving.

“Aerobic exercise is helpful as is making sure that your weight is on the normal side and kept down,” said Glaser.

Find what works for you.

“Some people find relaxation therapies, acupuncture, massage, stress management, biofeedback, or cognitive behavioral therapy helpful,” said Glaser. A specialist can assist you in finding relief. Experts are hopeful that there may be better treatments in the future.

“Research is looking at trying to understand the underlying mechanisms of migraines, because we just know there is a genetic component to it but that is not the answer,” said Glaser.

There are many genes involved, and researchers hope to be able to target them in the future, because right now, medications only focus on alleviating symptoms. This concept is similar to when you have a cold and you take cold medicine to dry out your nasal passages, so you do not have a runny nose anymore, but it does not treat the cold.

With the medical community hard at work, a cure may be within reach.

“We are optimistic with more money coming into research, but there is a misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the disease of migraine as a bad headache,” said Glaser. The key is to spread the word among friends and loved ones as to what they can do to heighten awareness.

“Step one is not treating it yourself,” said Glaser. “And step two is finding a qualified doctor, getting evaluated, and following his advice, so you can get help that is appropriate for the level of suffering that you have.”

Jamie Lober, author of Pink Power (www.getpinkpower.com), is dedicated to providing information on women’s and pediatric health topics. She can be reached at jamie@getpinkpower.com.

© 2013 Jamie Lober