Headaches are something we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives – they can be triggered by lack of sleep, noise, caffeine withdrawal, and emotional stress. A number of health conditions can also cause headaches such as the common cold, sinus infections, and even dental problems. Headaches are usually successfully cured with pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or by treating the underlying condition causing the headache. For example, a sinus infection would require antibiotics in addition to pain relief medication. However, when headaches turn into migraines they often become debilitating and are not always as easy to treat as the average headache.
As many as 3.7 million Canadians say they have had a migraine diagnosis. They occur most often in women (18% in comparison to 6% of men) and individuals between the ages of 35 and 55, though they can affect younger people as well.
Migraines are classified as a recurring, throbbing one-sided headache that is usually (but not always) accompanied by nausea and visual disturbances. Such disturbances can occur up to 60 minutes prior to the start of a migraine, including blind spots and flashing lights. These symptoms are known as “aura” and are commonly identified with migraines, though only 10 to 15 percent of migraine sufferers will actually experience them. During a migraine attack, patients may also experience nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light, sounds and smells. When differentiating between a classic headache and a migraine, the general rule of thumb is that if a headache or its symptoms prevent the patient from being able to perform their normal daily activities, it is most likely a migraine. Migraine attacks can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours, while some patients have no reprieve. Migraines are usually caused by a combination of factors including stress, hormonal changes, sleep disturbances and certain triggers (noises and smells and foods such as chocolate.) There is also evidence that suggests there can be a genetic predisposition to migraines.
Treatment of migraines is dependent on the symptoms, though they are most commonly treated with pain relief medications like Advil or Tylenol. There is also migraine-specific medication such as Cambia. In order to treat a migraine effectively, it is important to take pain-relief medication as soon as you notice the first signs of a migraine in order to achieve the best results. In severe cases or cases where patients suffer from chronic migraines on a recurring basis, Triptans such as Imitrex, Maxalt and Zomig will be prescribed. These medications work by constricting the blood vessels and blocking the pathways in the brain. Certain cardiovascular drugs (beta-blockers), anti-depressants and anti-seizure medications (Gabapentin, Tegretol) have also been successfully used to treat migraines. Filling agents that are typically used for cosmetic purposes, such as Botox, are also now being used to treat migraines and have proven to be successful in many cases. Anti-nausea medications such as Gravol or Zofran (Ondanzetron) are also commonly prescribed to migraine sufferers, as vomiting and a general feeling of illness is a common symptom associated with migraines.