The Migraine Research Foundation (MRF) states that nearly one in four households includes someone who suffers from migraines. Over 12 percent of the American population has them—more than diabetes and asthma combined.
Women get them more often. According to a 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 21.8 percent of women suffer from them, versus 10 percent of men. The MRF estimates it at 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men.
As anyone who’s suffered a migraine will tell you, these aren’t normal headaches. They are debilitating. A World Health Organization 2001 report stated that among all adults, migraine is one of the top 20 causes of disability, with severe migraines considered among the most disabling illnesses, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis.
A World Health Organization 2001 report stated that among all adults, migraine is one of the top 20 causes of disability, with severe migraines considered among the most disabling illnesses, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis.
One of the most frustrating things about migraines is their resistance to treatment. Ask a woman who’s had them for years and you’ll likely hear a story of numerous solutions tried, from medications to avoidance of triggers to massage and meditation to herbs and supplements. Some things will help and some won’t, and often it depends on a number of factors that can be difficult to control.
Fortunately, we’re learning more about migraines every day, and we have some new treatments available now that weren’t out there only a few years ago.
What is a Migraine?
A migraine is a type of intense headache that is often accompanied by other symptoms, including the following:
- sensitivity to light, sound, and smells;
- nausea and vomiting;
- vision disturbances;
- and a throbbing or pulsing sensation.
The pain also tends to be moderate to severe.
Whereas you can have pain and dizziness with other types of headaches, and possibly other symptoms like congestion or facial pressure, migraines tend to be more intense, and often affect only one side of the head (though they can affect both). The pain will be bad enough that it will be difficult to continue going about normal daily activities.
Most doctors see migraine as a type of “syndrome” or collection of symptoms all related to the same cause, rather than just a headache.
A subsection of the population who has migraines will also experience a symptom called “aura,” which refers to the odd sensation that can occur before the full onslaught of the headache. The victim may experience visual disturbances, tingling or numbness in the face and hands, and difficulty concentrating.
Most doctors see migraine as a type of “syndrome” or collection of symptoms all related to the same cause, rather than just a headache. Migraines also tend to be recurring, attacking in response to certain “triggers” sufferers may experience. These may include:
- a bad night’s sleep,
- hormonal changes (key trigger for women),
- certain foods and food additives,
- weather changes,
- bright lights and loud sounds,
- and some medications (like birth control pills and vasodilators).
Why Are Women More Vulnerable to Migraines?
Scientists have been looking into this for years, and they have come up with some answers. Here are a few of them.
- Hormonal Fluctuations: Scientists now know that changes in hormones can trigger migraines, which naturally increases women’s risk because of the monthly menstrual period. A 2012 study, for instance, reported that migraines usually start after a girl first experiences her period, and then often recurs in the days before menstruation, while tapering off during pregnancy and after menopause.
- Different Brain Patterns: Some research shows that women have certain brain connections that are different from those in men that make them more susceptible to migraine pain. In a 2012 study, for instance, researchers found through MRI scans that women who suffered from migraines had thicker gray matter in two areas of the brain compared to men and women without migraines. “Studies like this take migraines out of the realm of the subjective and show fundamental changes responsible for these differences,” said Andrew Charles, neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s quite validating for people with migraines who understand something quite significant is happening in their heads.”
- Enhanced Sensitivity to CSD: Cortical spreading depression (CSD) is a term used to describe when the cortical neurons in the brain go quiet. It’s described as a type of wave or ripple in the brain when the normal flow of electric currents is somehow reversed. There has been some research that when this happens, it can cause the “aura” some patients experience before migraine, and may be related to the cause of migraines themselves. Women are thought to be more sensitive to CSD than men. This area of research is so promising that new drugs that block CSD are being tested for their potential effectiveness against migraines.
- Childhood Neglect & Abuse: An interesting avenue of study on migraines has looked into a certain group of people—those who experienced emotional abuse or neglect as children. A 2015 study reported that rates of so-called adverse childhood experiences were significantly higher in participants with migraines. More specifically, rates were about 24.5 percent for emotional neglect, 22.5 percent for emotional abuse, ad 17.7 percent for sexual abuse—all higher than rates in those who didn’t experience migraines. A second study in 2015 found similar results—the more types of violence children were exposed to, the higher their risk of migraines. Statistics show that more girls suffer abuse than boys, which may relate to the number of women experiencing migraines.
10 Treatments that May Help
Whatever may be causing your migraines, you’re probably most concerned with finding relief. According to the Mayo Clinic, migraines can’t be cured. Our best hope so far is finding a way to manage them, reduce their occurrence, and reduce the intensity of the pain when we do have them.
Fortunately, there are several potential treatments out there that can help. It may help to realize that no one treatment fits all, and that sometimes, what works for a while may not work after a few years. The key is to be open to trying other potential solutions when needed.
Try to get a good night’s sleep on most nights, eat regular meals, and avoid those things that seem to lead to pain for you.
“Migraine Fact Sheet,” Migraine Research Foundation, /nm/journal/v8/n2/full/nm0202-136.html.
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“Children Who Are Abused or Neglected More Likely to Experience Migraine as Adults,” American Academy of Neurology, [Press Release], December 24, 2014, https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/home/PressRelease/1330.
Thomas P. Bravo and Bert B. Vargas, “Migraine Preventative Butterbur Has Safety Concerns,” Neurology Times, January 28, 2015, /headache-and-migraine/migraine-preventative-butterbur-has-safety-concerns.
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Yanyi Wang, et al., “Acupuncture for Frequent Migraine: A Randomized, Patient/Assessor Blinded, Controlled Trial with One-Year Follow-Up,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015; /journals/ecam/2015/920353/.