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Migraines - causes, symptoms and treatments

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

Migraines are moderate to severe headaches that usually present as a throbbing pain felt on one side of the head. They are a common complaint for many Brits, with 1 in 5 women suffering from migraines.

What causes migraines?

Although the cause of migraines is still unknown, the most commonly accepted explanation is that they are a result of abnormal brain activity which temporarily affects nerve signals, chemicals, and blood vessels in the brain. Many also believe genetics play a role as around half of all people who experience migraines will be related to someone who also has the condition.

Migraines can be set off by triggers and these triggers tend to be quite unique to each individual. Migraine triggers can be emotional, physical, hormonal, medicinal, and/or environmental in nature. For example, some women will find their migraines occur either before or after their period, while others will attribute migraines to poor sleep, dehydration, stress, caffeine, neck or shoulder tension, and/or flickering screens, among many other factors. 

What are the symptoms of a migraine?

In addition to pain in the head, symptoms of a migraine will often include feeling or being sick, and a sensitivity to light and/or sound.  Often you will hear the phrase “aura” when talking about migraines. They are temporary symptoms that will “warn” people of an impending migraine and can take the form of sensory disturbances such as blind spots, flashing lights, numbness, and feeling dizzy. These will affect 1 in 3 people who have migraines and can last anywhere from 5 minutes to up to an hour.

There are different types of migraines, but the most commonly experienced migraine is one without an aura. Other migraine types include migraine with aura and migraine aura without headache. A migraine aura without headache is also known as a silent migraine, where patients will experience symptoms of an aura without the headache.

What's the best treatment for migraines?

Migraines cannot be cured, but steps can be taken to manage the symptoms. Many sufferers find lying in a darkened room or sleeping is the most effective method, however over the counter painkillers can help as well. Paracetamol, aspirin, or ibuprofen can be taken at the first signs of a migraine and water soluble painkillers can be very efficient as they are quickly absorbed by the body. Other therapies for migraines include acupuncture, anti-sickness medicines, and a class of medicines called “triptans”, which cause the blood vessels around the brain to contract. 

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that repeated use of painkillers may make migraines worse, so speak to your doctor about the best options for you – and if you think you have migraines but haven’t yet had a diagnosis.