Migraine headaches produce an acute, throbbing pain on one side of the head, and are usually localized near the temple on either side of the head. Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, along with sensitivity to light and noise. Attacks can last anywhere from a few hours to days, and some suffer for longer periods.
It's been reported that over 28 million Americans suffer from migraines, which account for approximately 10% of the population. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from these severe headaches, however children and adolescents can experience them as well. What's interesting is that half of the people never see a physician about the condition.
What Causes Migraines?
The exact cause is not known. For many years it was believed they were the result of dilation of blood vessels, but today medical research has brought about other explanations. Many researchers in the field now believe the condition is a genetic disorder which affects how certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters such as serotonin) interact with nerve cells.
The typical migraine is associated with something doctors term as an "aura" - and relates to the symptoms migraine sufferers experience before the onset. The term "aura" is not the same term associated with mystical fields around the body. Instead the symptoms are described as visual hallucinations - such as seeing bright spots, flashing lights - and some have been known to suffer a loss of vision. Once these symptoms occur, the migraine headaches usually occur shortly thereafter.
There is a second class of migraines - people who suffer from this type usually do not have advance warning of the symptoms listed above.
What Brings on Migraines?
Although there is no concrete answer to this question, researchers have found there a combination of factors that can increase the frequency. In the area of sleep the research is conflicting because a lack of sleep - as well as getting too much sleep can be a risk. Migraines are often associated with eating certain foods, such as cheese, and also skipping meals increases the risk. Trying to find the right balance for your body type is definitely frustrating, and a continual challenge.
Certain hormonal factors are also believed to influence the onset and severity of attacks. Researchers believe this is why there is a much higher incidence among women than men - one study shows approximately 17% as opposed to 6%. In addition, some studies have shown a connection between contraceptive pills and migraines. Estrogen is a component of birth control pills and affects blood vessels.
Stress is also a trigger - and even simple everyday activities, such as walking up stairs or other activities involving more physical exertion, can trigger an attack. Other triggers can involve extreme heat or cold, loud noises or flickering lights. Often, migraines occur more frequently when there is a combination of these triggers.
Fortunately, there are a variety of medical treatments available, though none has been shown to be overwhelmingly effective in all cases. Sometimes simple acetaminophen is a useful aid. In more extreme cases, triptans and other prescription medications are called for.
Since the triggers differ for each person, it is useful to keep a diary on each attack. Try to note all the external and internal factors going on at the time the attack occurs. Hopefully in keeping a running diary, it may be possible to find the exact combination of triggers that cause the migraine headaches.
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