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October 25, 2019 Jeff Blanchard

The Migraine Headache Guide

FACT: Migraines headaches are painful, irritating, inconvenient and really just no fun at all.

Aside from that, how much do you really know about migraines? What are they? Where do they come from? Why do we get them? How does one make them go away? Get ready to have all your questions answered, thanks to our comprehensive guide to migraines!

Abstract cloud of migraine related imagesWhat Is a Migraine?

Let’s get this one out of the way first. A migraine is a headache with throbbing pain that is usually worse on one side of the head. The pain is often severe enough to hamper daily activities and may last from four hours to three days if untreated. More than one in 10 Americans (including one in six women) have migraines, but many have been misdiagnosed as a sinus or tension headache.

Migraine Symptoms

Throbbing pain typically occurs on one side of the head near the temples, forehead and eyes. Many people also experience nausea, vomiting and vision problems. Symptoms can grow more severe with even mild exertion, such as climbing the stairs. Migraines can also make you very sensitive to light and sound. The pain can be disabling; so much so that many people are forced to miss work or other daily activities.

Migraine with Aura

Approximately 20% of people who suffer from migraines will experience what is called an “aura”. These “auras” occur between 20-60 minutes before the onset of a headache. Patients report seeing flashing lights, wavy lines, dots and they may have blurry vision or blind spots. These are called “classic migraines.”

Migraine Warning Signs

Before a migraine begins, some people may experience a change in mood. Migraine sufferers can become more excitable, irritable or depressed. Some people detect unusual sensations, such as a funny smell or taste. They may feel more fatigued, yawn frequently, or experience muscle tension. These warning signs are known as the “prodromal phase.” Approximately one in four people experience these warning signs, which can occur as early as 24 hours before the headache begins.

What Causes a Migraine?

The exact cause of migraines is still not well understood, but the problem is thought to be neurological (related to the nervous system). It is believed that brain chemicals, blood vessels and nerves within the brain are involved.

Common migraine triggers
X-ray image of man with headache
Flashing Lights

Flashing or flickering lights are a common migraine trigger. This could be a reflection from snow or water, or from fluorescent bulbs, television or movie screens. Wearing polarizing sunglasses outside and using daylight spectrum fluorescent bulbs inside may help.

Anxiety and Stress

While it’s impossible to completely avoid stress, relaxation exercises can help patents cope. Inhale and exhale slowly, letting the air fill your lungs and then deflate like a balloon. Some people find that thinking of a peaceful scene or listening to calming music can help.

Lack of Food or Sleep

It’s important for people prone to migraines to have a regular pattern of meals and sleep. Low blood sugar from skipping meals can trigger a migraine. Eating too much sugar also can cause a spike, then a “crash” in blood sugar. Drink water throughout the day to avoid dehydration and sleep at least six to eight hours a night.

Hormonal Changes

For many women, migraines are tied to their menstrual cycle, occurring either a few days before or during their period, when estrogen levels drop. Some women may benefit from anti-inflammatory medication before their headaches begin, or hormonal birth control such as pills, patches, or rings.

Headache Foods

Migraine sufferers often report that certain foods trigger their headaches. Common culprits include MSG, red wine, cheese, chocolate, soy sauce, and processed meats. Make a point to avoid these foods and drinks if you suffer from migraines.


Aged, fermented and stored foods have higher levels of tyramine, a substance created from the breakdown of the amino acid tyrosine. Tyramine may cause blood vessels to constrict then expand, and it may be a trigger for some migraines. Some headache experts advise limiting fermented or aged foods, such as cheese, soy sauce, pickles and pepperoni.

Tracking Personal Triggers

The best way for people to find out what triggers their own migraines is to keep a headache diary. When a migraine occurs, patients are encouraged to make a note about the warning signs (the “prodromal phase”), triggers and severity. If people can discover their own personal triggers, they may be able to avoid future headaches.

Who Gets Migraines?

Cartoon image of woman having migraine headache

Experts believe gene mutations that affect certain areas of the brain may be the source of migraines. If you have a close relative with migraines, you are more likely to be at risk.

Migraines are also more common among those with epilepsy, depression, asthma, anxiety, stroke and some other neurological and hereditary disorders.

Women are three times more likely to have migraines than men.

Migraines most often strike between the ages of 20 and 60. While the elderly still get migraines, they often decrease in severity and frequency with age, and sometimes they disappear entirely.

At Home Treatment Tips

Calm Yourself

Get to a dark, quiet room and try your best to relax for a while. Getting good sleep can help prevent migraines, so allow yourself to nod off if you can.

Change the Temperature

Apply an ice pack or heat pad to your head and neck. Cold may numb the pain while heat will relax tensed muscles.

Eat Right

Consistent, healthy eating habits can hold back migraines, so eat regularly and be sure to avoid foods that have triggered your headaches in the past.

Drink Caffeine

No, seriously! When combined with some pain medications, caffeine can help provide relief. But keep it just one or two cups a day. Too much caffeine can actually cause headaches when the stimulant effect wears off.

Exercise Regularly
Woman doing yoga on a cliff overlooking the ocean

Staying active and maintaining a healthy weight can help with your migraine troubles. Light exercises like jogging or yoga are recommended, as they keep you active while not being overly strenuous, which can in fact trigger a headache.

Keep Your Stress Under Control

Keep it simple, don’t fill your schedule, have a positive attitude and find time each day to unplug and clear your mind. Less stress can go a long way in keeping your migraines at bay.

Migraines are a bummer for sure, but there are ways to get relief. Educating yourself and adjusting certain parts of your lifestyle can make a huge difference! Along with at home remedies, talk to a doctor about possible options for long-term headache relief.

IMPORTANT: Any new headache or one that is unusually severe or lasts more than a couple of days should be checked by a doctor. If you have a headache accompanied by paralysis, confusion, fever or stiff neck you should seek emergency care.

Twin Cities Pain Clinic Are Your Migraine Experts.

If you or a friend or family member is suffering from migraine headaches, schedule an appointment at Twin Cities Pain Clinic. Our practitioners are specially trained to diagnose migraines and provide effective treatment options.

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