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Migraine is a neurological condition characterised by attacks of severe headaches, usually in conjunction with several other symptoms.

A woman holding her head in pain

Migraine causes, while not yet fully understood, appear to be attributed to genetics and environmental factors affecting the brain, nerves and blood vessels within the head.

The condition is split into different types, the most common being migraine with aura and migraine without aura, referring to the visual disturbances that frequently accompany the headache.

What are its symptoms?

Migraine symptoms include:

  • Moderate to severe pounding or throbbing pain, often on the one side of the head but it can affect the entire head
  • Visual disturbances (aura), like bright flashes, shapes or dots or blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds and smells
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability.

A migraine attack often progresses through four stages, namely:

  1. Prodrome: sufferers may notice subtle changes in the day or two preceding a migraine, including mood changes, food cravings, a stiff neck or digestive disturbances,
  2. Aura phase: visual or sensory disturbances, usually in the hour leading up to the onset of the pain,
  3. Attack/pain phase,
  4. Postdrome: aftereffects, including impaired thinking, drowsiness and weakness.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose migraines, a doctor will usually assess all the symptoms to see that they meet the criteria for this type of headache. It’s important to give as much detail as possible about the headaches, including their frequency, severity, the type of pain experienced and the accompanying symptoms, as well as any family history.

While certain brain imaging tests can rule out other causes of headaches, they won’t be able to confirm a migraine diagnosis.

What are your treatment options?

While there is no known migraine cure, migraine treatment options do exist and will vary from person to person. Medication used at the onset of a migraine may include painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen, triptans (which can help relieve pain and nausea in up to 75 percent of cases) and a class of drugs called ergotamines. These are the mainstays of treatment once symptoms set in and will be prescribed accordingly by your healthcare practitioner. Other medicines may be used to help relieve the other symptoms, such as anti-nausea medication.

Can it be prevented?

Some sufferers may be aware of certain migraine triggers, with commonly cited ones including stress, fatigue, hormonal changes (pregnancy, menstrual periods, using the contraceptive pill, etc.) and hunger. Keeping a migraine journal that tracks the events leading up to attacks may be able to help you identify and avoid these triggers.

Prophylactic medication can be used as a preventative measure to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and is a good option for those who suffer from chronic migraines (four or more a month).

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015