The truth about migraines

21 October 2016

Migraines are very common in adults; in fact, almost six million people in the UK have at least one a year. You’re more than twice as likely to have migraines if you’re a woman, and more likely to have them if you’re under the age of 65.

But although they’re very common, there are many misconceptions about what they are, what causes them and what you can do to manage them. If you want to know the facts from the myths about migraines, here’s our simple guide.

A man who can't sleep, holding his head

1. Are migraines more than just a headache?

Migraines are more than ‘just a headache’. They’re a neurological pain disorder, which means they’re a condition that affects your nervous system. As well as headaches, they can cause sensory problems, such as being sensitive to light and noise. Some people feel sick or are sick when they have a migraine, and others can have difficulty concentrating or problems talking.

Migraines can come with or without something called aura. Aura is a group of symptoms that come on before or during the headache, and last for up to an hour. They include changes to your sight such as tunnel vision, flashing lights or areas of blindness, speech problems, pins and needles and numbness.

Migraine headaches can be severe, throbbing and pulsating. If you have other symptoms as well, it can be very hard to do normal everyday tasks. You may need to take time off work, or you might find that you can’t go about your normal life until the migraine has gone. All in all, migraines can have an enormous impact on your work, family and social life.

2. How long do migraines last?

Migraines usually last between four hours and three days. If you’re having migraines regularly then that can start to have a big impact on your health and wellbeing.

Moving or doing anything active when you have a migraine can make the pain worse. This is why you may find yourself lying in a dark and quiet room until the migraine starts to get better. Even when the migraine has gone, you can feel weak and tired for a while too.

3. Are migraines caused by stress?

Around half of people who have migraines can link a specific trigger to the start of one. Stress is one trigger, but there are many more. If you’re woman, you might get migraines when you ovulate, have your period or use hormonal contraception. Changes in the amount of sleep you get, hunger, some foods such as cheese, red wine and drinks that contain caffeine can also bring a migraine on.

If you think your migraine may be started by something specific, it can help to keep a headache diary for a couple of months. Write down how long the migraine lasts, what symptoms you have and any triggers that you think may have started it. Share this with your GP.

4. Are there warning signs?

More than half of people who have migraines get some warning symptoms, and these tend to be the same each time. These symptoms usually start a few days or hours before a migraine and can include:

  • being very sensitive to light, sound, and smells
  • feeling tired and weak or uncontrollable yawning
  • craving certain foods or feeling very thirsty
  • mood changes

5. What are the main treatments?

The main treatment for migraines is usually painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol. If your symptoms are more severe, you may also take a medicine called a triptan. You take painkillers and triptans as soon as a migraine starts and they help to ease your symptoms. If you’re having regular, severe migraines you can also take medicines to prevent them.

One thing to be aware of when you’re taking regular painkillers is that if you take too many for a long time, they can make your headaches worse. If you’re taking painkillers or triptans for more than 10 days a month, talk to your doctor.

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21 October 2016

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