Migraine Headaches

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

Migraines are believed to be brought on by imbalances in brain chemicals, as serotonin levels drop significantly during a migraine attack. The dropping of levels is usually caused by a combination of "triggers," and it is not completely understood why certain triggers can affect certain individuals but not others. A combination of genetics and environmental factors may play a role in determining what activates migraines, and they can vary from person to person. Sometimes, it may take several sessions of trial and error to figure out what initiates migraine attacks.

Some common migraine headache triggers include:

  • Hormonal changes: Changes in estrogen, a female hormone, are linked to migraine episodes. Women are generally more susceptible to migraine headaches than men, especially before and after a menstrual cycle, or during menopause. Talk to a doctor for hormone management techniques.
  • Unhealthy diet: Harsh food and drink, such as alcohol or processed foods, can cause migraine in certain individuals. Foods that contain aspartame (a type of artificial sweetener), monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG), nitrates, preservatives, too much caffeine, or too much salt can activate migraines. Fasting individuals or those who often skip meals may also experience more frequent migraine attacks as well, so be sure to eat healthy foods and do not skip meals.
  • Stress and anxiety: An accumulation of stress at home, work or school can be a factor that contributes to migraine attacks. Be sure to occasionally employ relaxation techniques to help ward off stress.
  • Medication: Migraine attacks may be a side effect of an ongoing drug therapy for some people. Be sure to talk to your doctor to seek other medication options or help with migraine management.
  • Sensory factors: Loud noises, flashing lights, or pungent perfumes can be migraine headache triggers for certain people.
  • Physical factors: Overexertion, extreme temperatures, and eyestrains can serve as triggers for these pounding headaches.
  • Irregular sleep cycles: Changes in sleep patterns, such as those experienced during time-changing jet lag, can be a contributing factor for migraines. Napping, oversleeping, or too little sleep can also be culprits.


Migraines are most commonly characterized by a moderate to severe throbbing or pounding sensation on the head. While about 60 percent of migraines occur on one side of the head, 40 percent of migraine occurrences can happen to both sides of the head.

Other symptoms that accompany the throbbing pain may include, but are not limited to:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Light sensitivity
  • Sound sensitivity
  • Smell sensitivity
  • Visual disturbances, such as wavy lines, dots, or flashing lights
  • Tingling in the face
  • Difficulty speaking and focusing
  • Weakness in the limbs
  • Increasing pain with routine physical activities
  • Symptoms can last longer than 72 hours

Prevention and Treatments

While there is no definite treatment that can "cure" migraine headaches, simple home remedies have been proven to be extremely effective at providing relief. Generally, migraine management can be carried out by cutting off the migraine trigger and taking OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. The best way to manage migraines is to take preventative measures against any future attacks.

If you are experiencing chronic, frequent recurrence of migraine headaches, it may be advisable to see a healthcare professional to see if you qualify for migraine preventative therapy. Some forms of such therapy include:

  • Botulinum toxin type A: better known as the cosmetic injection, Botox, this substance has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat migraines. They are administered through injections to the forehead and the neck.
  • Antidepressants: antidepressants help prevent migraines by inhibiting certain chemical reactions in the brain. You do not need to be depressed to receive this therapy for migraine prevention, as it is up to your physician's evaluations to determine if this is a suitable measure.
  • Anti-seizure drugs: this type of medication has been shown to be effective in reducing the frequency of migraine recurrences, but may also come with undesirable side effects, such as hair loss, cramps, or dizziness.
  • Cardiovascular drugs: while beta blockers are better known as cardiovascular drugs meant to lower high blood pressure and artery diseases, they have been shown to decrease the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Another type of cardiovascular drug, calcium channel blockers, has also been shown to be effective in migraine prevention.

Your doctor may also give you prescription-strength opiates or pain relievers if he or she deems suitable. It is advised for the affected individual to keep a journal or record of migraine attacks to track the frequency and severity of the recurrences to help better determine the form of treatment or prevention. Keeping a journal may also reveal your unique triggers that cause migraine headaches for effective management.


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