When there is pressure or pain in your head, it can be difficult to tell whether you are experiencing a typical headache or a migraine. Recognizing a migraine from a traditional headache, and vice versa, is important. It can mean faster relief through better treatments. It can also help prevent future headaches from occurring in the first place. So, how can you tell the difference between a common headache and a migraine?
Migraines are more than just bad headaches
The word “migraine” has come to be synonymous with a really bad headache, but it’s actually a genetic disorder. If you’re diagnosed with migraines, it means you’re genetically predisposed to have a lower threshold for migraine-causing triggers. About 45–48 million Americans suffer from migraines, and the average person gets three attacks per month, each one lasting an average of about 10 hours.
Some migraines have a built-in warning called an aura
An aura is basically a warning sign that a migraine is coming. Auras can be visual, with bright or flashing lights or dark zigzag lines in your field of vision. They can be something you feel, like pins and needles or numbness somewhere in your body.
Most common kind has no warning sign at all
Majority of migraine sufferers get migraines without aura, where it kicks off with the headache itself. Migraines with aura are the next most common kind.
For some people, the first phase of a migraine is days before the actual headache hits
The first phase of a migraine begins a couple days before the aura or headache hits. Next comes the aura but others can go straight to the next phase — the headache. The attack phase is next, bringing some or all of the following: nausea, sensitivity to sound and light, dizziness, vomiting, and neck pain.
During the attack phase, the pain is very bad
While tension headaches and caffeine headaches can be painful, nothing puts the hurt on you headache-wise like a migraine. In fact, that one thing that distinguishes migraines from other headaches is the extent to which they are “disabling”.
After the headache pain subsides, most people are left with a migraine hangover
The last phase, called the postdrome, is when recovery begins. For the couple days it lasts, patients feel foggy and slow to process information, achy all over, and might even have some gaps in memory.
Migraines happen when someone with a genetic predisposition is exposed to a trigger
To understand how migraine triggers work, think of a door that, when closed, keeps the migraine from getting in. This closed door is the brain when it’s not exposed to any triggers. But each time a patient is exposed to a trigger, the door opens a bit, eventually allowing a migraine to set in.
Triggers can also include food, hormonal changes, and even the weather
Cheese, chocolate, and wine are some common ones. Fluctuations in hormones (like your period) or even changes in the weather can bring on a migraine if that’s what sets you off.
What is happening in a patient’s brain to wreak all this havoc?
Brain cells work by sending electric signals to one another. When a migraine is triggered, a wave of electrical activity spreads over the surface of the brain, suppressing the brain’s normal electrical activity.
When it comes to treatment, you can take medications before the pain occurs
Medications should be taken before the pain has a chance to move from where it begins in your brain stem to where it wants to go in your cerebral cortex.
You can take preventive medications, too
Botox and Cefaly are newer treatments for migraine prevention. Botox is injected strategically into the tiny muscles around the head, neck, and sinuses, to paralyze the muscles in those areas, thereby preventing migraine pain from occurring. Cefaly looks like a medical tiara. It’s worn on the head and it sends “intelligent signals” to block the electricity of nerves that transmit pain.
Keeping your daily routine as regular, calm, and balanced as possible also helps
Every migraine has triggers that can be controlled for, but patients should not skipping meals, avoid excess caffeine, exercise regularly, stay hydrated, and try to reduce stress and have rest.
If you think those headaches you’ve been missing work for might be migraines, see your doctor
It is important for people who get migraines to actually be diagnosed with them so that they can get their hands on treatment.
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