A migraine is a severe headache that can cause significant pain for hours to days and is often disabling, so that the person is unable to function normally. Along with the pain, the person typically also experiences nausea and sensitivity to light and sound, often requiring them to take to their bed in total darkness. Migraines usually begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Migraine is very common – it’s the third most prevalent illness in the world, affecting nearly one fourth of U.S. households. The frequency of migraines varies from person to person: some people have attacks several times per month, while others might have just one per year or less. Though anyone can get migraines, they are particularly common among women during their reproductive years and tend to strike between ages 15 and 55.
Experts used to think that migraines were caused by the opening and narrowing of blood vessels in the brain. Today, though the causes are still not fully understood, genetics and environmental factors are thought to play a strong role. Specifically, migraines may be caused by changes in the brainstem and the way it interacts with certain nerves that control pain, and these changes may be inherited. Brain chemical imbalances may also be a factor, especially those involving the chemical serotonin which helps regulate pain.
Migraines may also be triggered by hormone fluctuations (in women), certain foods like cheese and processed items, food additives like MSG and aspartame, alcohol and caffeine, stress, bright light, strong odors like cigarette smoke or perfume, changes in sleep habits, excessive exercise, weather changes and certain medications including birth control pills and vasodilators.
Roughly 40 percent of chronic migraine patients suffer from an additional four chronic conditions, says Dr. Thorpe, who recently authored the paper “Prevalence, Health Care Spending and Comorbidities Associated with Chronic Migraine Patients.”
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