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Almost 15% of adults experience painful vascular headaches (where the pain is caused by blood vessel swelling or disturbance) called migraine headaches.

Migraine Headaches Overview

Migraines are characterised by recurrent headaches which are often accompanied by visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting. Migraines can last for several days and may be preceded by a period of feeling 'off colour' and irritable, known as the prodrome.

A tendency to develop migraines sometimes runs in families, suggesting that genetic factors may play a role. Treatment involves a range of measures from medication to treat attacks and prevent further attacks, to dietary changes, massage and relaxation techniques.

What is a Migraine Headache?

A migraine is a persistent, throbbing headache typically affecting one side of the head. It can last from anywhere between 4 and 72 hours. Migraines are thought to be caused by a sudden widening of the blood vessels that supply the brain, which in turn irritates the nerves surrounding these blood vessels.

Migraine Headache Symptoms

Migraine headaches can be accompanied by symptoms that have a significant impact on daily life. As well as the headache, people may also experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances. Occasionally, symptoms can be more severe - including partial paralysis, difficulty in speaking, confusion, or fainting. (See Migraine Headache Symptoms)

Migraine Headache Causes

The exact causes of migraine headaches are not completely understood, but you may find that certain triggers can start or worsen a migraine. Avoiding these migraine triggers can become an effective means of reducing the number of attacks. (See Migraine Headache Causes and Triggers)

Changes in the trigeminal nerve pathway (the main sensory nerve of the face and motor nerve for the muscles used in chewing) are believed to result in the release of chemicals that dilate the blood vessels in the outer covering of the brain (called meninges). This causes a headache. Imbalances in other chemicals, such as serotonin, may also contribute to a migraine headache.

Types of Migraines

There are two main types if migraine headaches. The first is a classical migraine in which the headache and nausea are preceded or accompanied by an event known as an aura. This may involve a range of phenomena, including visual disturbances, tingling and or numbness in various parts of the body and feelings of restlessness or depression. What causes the aura is not clearly understood.

The second type is the common migraine, in which there is no aura preceding theheadache. Some people also experience a visual migraine, in which they have the visual disturbances but no headache.

Migraine Headache Diagnosis

A migraine can be diagnosed based on the family history, medical history, and physical examination. A computerized tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), or a spinal tap may be recommended to rule out other causes.

Common Migraine Headache Treatments

Although there is no cure for a migraine, with the right balance of medical and non-medical management, you can reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. There are numerous migraine headache treatments that may provide relief, but your first step should be to talk to your doctor.

Medical treatment for migraines are divided into two groups: pain relief and preventative.

The most common pain relief treatments are painkillers such as paracetamol (eg Panadol), aspirin (eg Aspro clear) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (eg Nurofen). Some painkillers come combined with an anti-sickness medicine, for example Paramax, Migramax and Domperamol. Doctors may prescribe Triptans like sumatriptan (Imigran), rizatriptan (Maxalt) and zolmitriptan (Zomig) or Ergots or Anti-emetics.

You may also be prescribed the following as preventatives; Beta blockers, Anti-depressants, Calcium channel blockers, Anti-epileptics and Anti-serotonin drugs.

Often you will need to try a range of migraine treatments to find the one most suitable to you. Your doctor or specialist will help you with this process. (See Migraine Headache Treatments)

Managing a Migraine Headache when it strikes

One of the keys to tackling a migraine is to treat it at the very first signs and symptoms.

  • Take your pain relef medication as soon as you feel the migraine 'coming on'.
  • Lie down in a dark room. Close your eyes and try to relax. Deep breathing can help.
  • Use an ice pack wrapped in a small towel on your head and neck.
  • A warm bath or shower can help you to relax. If you can manage it, take a walk to help ease tension
  • Massage the back of your neck or ask a friend or relative to massage your neck and shoulders.
  • Apply gentle pressure to the painful area using your thumb and forefingers. Push for about 10 seconds and then release.

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