We have all had headaches that make us want to curl up and not do anything. A migraine is also a form of headache, but one where the pain can be intense. If you have been suffering from throbbing headache, it will help if you are able to identify the symptoms of migraine, its causes, and the ways to cure it. Interestingly, migraines are not caused by underlying conditions. Migraine headache occurs when the arteries in the brain react to either an internal or external pressure or trigger. “When this trigger gets precipitated, the arteries dilate and you get a headache. Headaches are associated with secondary chemical change or chemical inflammation,” says Dr Joy Desai, neuro physician, Bhatia Hospital, Mumbai.
Causes of migraine
The causes of migraine could include stress, dehydration or late nights, while external triggers can be sunlight, noise, pollution, smog, exposure to high altitude, great heat and humidity, says Dr Desai. A significant proportion of the population is affected by it. “Almost 15-20% of the general population experiences migraine. So much so, that it is also called as a ‘common migraine’. It has a small familial component but the rest is related to our hectic lifestyle,” says Dr Pruthviraj Dabarase, consultant neurologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre.
Researchers suspect that migraine headaches may be caused by the abnormal functioning of the pain sensing mechanism involving the nerves that supply the face, head and coverings of the brain (trigeminal nerve). “This causes changes in electrical activity of certain part of brain followed by changes in blood vessel calibre,” says Dr Dabarase.
The common symptoms of migraine may be a dull pain involving the whole/part of the head. There may also be sensitivity to bright light, blurring of vision, loud sound or odours, nausea, vomiting, or a spinning sensation.
“These symptoms build up over minutes and may last for hours. Sleep can sometimes alleviate the headache, but most need painkiller medication. Sleep is not disturbed but, at times, one may wake up with a headache,” says Dr Dabarase. In a few cases, there may be secondary reasons and severe migraines could be due to tumours in the brain, says Dr Desai.
Lifestyle changes and migraine
Certain foods are believed to trigger migraine headache. “Processed food with preservatives, particularly cold cuts or microwaveable types of readymade foods, can trigger migraine attack in some patients. Some of the other triggers are Chinese food containing ajinomoto and Monosodium glutamate (MSG), strong cheese, and dark chocolates. For some, a head-bath or exposure to air conditioning may trigger it. The frequency or intensity of migraine is cyclical in ladies with mid-cycle or peri-menstrual increase in symptoms,” says Dr Dabarase.
Many people also find that eating fermented foods, be it idlis or dhoklas, can give them migraine headaches. “But there’s no proof that a certain food item definitely causes migraine. There can’t be a general advice to avoid all processed food,” says Dr Desai.
How to cure migraine
To protect yourself from migraines, doctors advise that patients should eat home-cooked fresh foods and meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also important to drink plenty of oral fluids and have meals at the right time. “Drinking at least 3 litres of water a day is a must because dehydration is a common trigger for migraine. Other than that, having a healthy breakfast, not going hungry for long hours, consuming something small and healthy every 3-4 hrs, and ensuring you have enough sleep are the simple steps to follow,” says Dr Desai.
While there are no special exercises for migraine, being active is considered to be very important. “A brisk walk for 35-45 minutes a day 5-7 times a week, swimming or swimming pool exercises in obese individuals can help reduce migraine. Yoga and pranayam may also help, but one should avoid headstands or extreme postures of the head,” says Dr Dabarase.
Being physically unfit increases symptoms because the ability to withstand stress and triggers is impaired, says Dr Desai. Other good measures could be to get adequate sleep, and ensure you wear sunglasses with ultraviolet protection when outdoors.
In cases of severe migraine, doctors can suggest treatment to contain the headache, which can include drugs to reduce inflammation and a painkiller. “Those who have more than two migraine attacks a week may need to take preventive medicines. But these should be consumed only after proper advice from a medical practitioner,” says Dr Desai.