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Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches can be debilitating, and, in some cases, chronic.  In this post, we will look at some of the symptoms of migraines, how they are diagnosed, and some common treatments for migraines.

Overview

Migraines are characterized by severe headaches that usually involve throbbing pain felt on one side of the head, and can be accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and/or sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world, and can interfere with an individual’s ability to work and complete day-to-day activities, especially for those suffering from chronic migraines.  Some studies have determined that healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraines may be as high as $36 billion annually.  Migraines can affect anyone—in the U.S. 18% of migraine sufferers are women, 6% are men, and 10% are children.  They are more common in individuals aged 25 to 55 and in those with family members that also suffer from migraines.[1]

Symptoms

Migraine symptoms, frequency, and length vary from person to person.  However, they usually have four stages:

Prodrome: This occurs one or two days before a migraine attack and can include mood changes, food cravings, neck stiffness, frequent yawning, increased thirst and urination, and constipation.

Aura: This stage can occur before or during a migraine attack.  Auras are usually  visual disturbances (flashes of light, wavy or zigzag vision, seeing spots or other shapes, or vision loss.  There can also be sensory (pins and needles, numbness or weakness on one side of the body, hearing noises), motor (jerking), or speech (difficulty speaking) disturbances.  While auras often occur 10 to 15 minutes before a headache, they can occur anywhere from a day to a few minutes before a migraine attack.  Typically, an aura goes away after the migraine attack, but in some cases, it lasts for a week or more afterwards (this is called persistent aura without infarction).

Migraine: The migraine itself consists of some or all of the following symptoms:

    • Pain on one or both sides of the head that often begins as a dull pain but becomes throbbing
    • Sensitivity to light, sound, odors, or sensations
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Blurred vision
    • Dizziness and/or fainting
    • Migrainous stroke or migrainous infraction (in rare cases)

Post-drome: This stage follows a migraine and can include confusion, mental dullness, dizziness,  neck pain, and the need for more sleep.

A migraine can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and there are several classifications of migraines, including:

  • Classic migraine – migraine with aura
  • Common migraine – migraine without aura
  • Chronic migraine – a headache occurring at least 15 days per month, for at least three months, eight of which have features of a migraine
  • Status migraine – (status migrainosus) a severe migraine attack that lasts for longer than 3 days

Causes

The exact causes of migraines are not clearly understood but involve abnormal brain activity, including (1) changes in the brain stem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve and (2) imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin.  Migraines are most often triggered by:

  • Food and food additives (often salty or aged food, MSG, meats with nitrites, aspartame)
  • Skipping meals
  • Drink (alcohol, caffeine, caffeine withdrawal)
  • Sensory stimuli (bright or flashing lights, strong odors, loud noises)
  • Hormonal changes or hormone medication such as birth control
  • Certain other medications
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Strenuous exercise or other physical stress
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Changes in weather

Co-occurrence

Migraines have been shown to co-occur with several other conditions[2], including:

Treatment

There are a variety of options that doctors employ to both treat and prevent migraine attacks.

  • Pain-relieving medications (both over the counter and prescription)
  • Preventative medications (which can include antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and seizure medications)
  • Botox
  • Transcutaneous supraorbital nerve stimulation (t-SNS) (a headband-like device with attached electrodes)
  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Massage therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Herbs, vitamins, and minerals
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Sticking to a sleep schedule
  • Exercise
  • Avoidance of known triggers

Doctors also sometimes recommend keeping a headache diary, similar to a pain journal, which can help you track the frequency of your migraines and may help identify triggers.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

Cedars-Sinai, https://www.cedars-sinai.edu
Healthline, www.healthline.com
Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
MedlinePlus, www.medlineplus.gov

 

[1] Migraine Research Foundation, About Migraine, http://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/

[2] Wang, Shuu-Jiun, et. al., Comorbidities of Migraine, Frontiers in Neurology, Aug. 23, 2010, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fneur.2010.00016/full

[3] Id. (citing Von Korff M., et. al., Chronic spinal pain and physical-mental comorbidity in the United States: results from the national comorbidity survey replication, Pain 113, 331-330 (2005).