What are migraines? They are not just painful headaches – they are a host of multiple symptoms that are disabling and can last for days, weeks or months.
They are a lifelong condition and I would add: unpredictable, intense, and life altering. The answer is... all of the above. Did you get it right?
The World Health Organization (WHO) rates migraine as a leading cause of disability worldwide. The statistics vary a little, but overall: eighteen percent of women; six to eight percent of men; and two percent of children will experience migraine in their lifetime.
An astounding number once added up. And it is global. No one culture escapes this condition. There is no known cure in the history of migraine. The theories have changed over the years, there has been great debate over what are migraines? So, here's what I can gather:
It was first believed that a dilation of blood vessels within the head caused the migraine attack.
Then the theory was discovered that perhaps the process was related to primarily a neurological dysfunction, and was somehow caused by overactivity of the nerves.
The Greeks used to drill holes in people's skulls to relieve pressure, thank goodness we are past that barbaric form of finding relief.
With my attacks I need to act fast. Taking my abortive medication, grabbing an ice pack and going to bed is my best pain management plan right now. I also use a variety of relaxation CD's and guided meditations to help me drift off to sleep or to just rest.
I use these all the time. Have a click!
What are migraines? Neuroscientists currently believe:
• It starts with a trigger – could be any trigger: food, food allergies, other allergies, weather changes, hormone changes, smoke, perfume. Please click on these links to read more about migraine headache triggers or the most common migraine triggers.
• Spreading excitation – also called “spreading depression” or a “nerve storm” which is explained as a wave that slowly spreads across the outer layers of the brain (cortex). The electrical charge carried by brain neurons sends signals to each other during normal brain activity.
In migraine they rapidly discharge some of their electrical charge via negative ions. This is considered a dysfunction. Now that was technical! I would just interpret that to read as an over active reaction in our brain and nervous system. There's a bit more to understand to answer What is Migraine...
• Off balance chemical brain messengers - all this over excitement causes the chemicals to become unbalanced.
• Blood vessels dilate – a disturbed blood flow to the brain causes the arteries to constrict and then dilate.
• Over stimulates nerves in brain – according to Migraine for Dummies “the communication between neurotransmitter and brain cells (neurons) breaks down, and the levels of serotonin and other brain-messenger chemicals fluctuate – a big problem for your body, because serotonin plays a role in your ability to feel pain” (pg.53).
• The Pain signal is sent from the top of the brain back to the brain stem. And the reaction cycle continues.
I have also read somewhere that the fascia tissue actually swells creating pressure around the brain causing the pain, similar to meningitis. This kind of adds different information to the question "What are Migraines?" but it makes sense to me.
Some physicians have compared the similarities between migraine to epilepsy. That makes sense to me for some reason too. They have that similar wave of over activity spreading across the brain. I have read that the people who seizure bypass the pain part of migraine and that we get stuck in the pain part and don't fully go into the seizure.
I said it was complicated! What are Migraines? Something we should take seriously. I believe that if I knew in the beginning that it was something like Meningitis, or Epilepsy, I would have treated and been treated much differently.
There's a good chance that you've already noticed how underrated and misunderstood migraine disorder still is in society. This complex unpredictable neurological medical condition is not just the intense pain phase, it's a chain reaction that sets off a whole cascade of biological events.
It means a lifetime of multiple symptoms that are disabling and can often be life altering.
Here are a few more details for you to better answer the question of what are migraines? The International Headache Society defines migraine attacks as having at least two to four of these features:
• Pain affecting one side of the head only
• Pulsating in quality
• Moderate or severe in intensity
• Aggravated by exertion
As well as – nausea, with or without vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or smell. And in my case – visual disturbance. Or a combination of any or all of those symptoms.
The problem in defining “what are migraines?” is that the nature of the attack varies so much from person to person and can change from one episode to another in the same individual.
I know my symptoms have changed over the years in patterns and places on the body and they continue to change. They vary from milder to more severe attacks, although on average they are mostly severe. My newest symptoms are visual disturbances with blank spots, zigzags, shimmering and more noticeable silver lightning bolts.
Thankfully the mood swings have calmed down significantly over the years, as I have slowly come to accept this lifelong condition. There was a time when I had no pain abortives, 14 years or so, where the pain was so intense that I could not detect the more subtle warning symptoms my body was sending me. It was just a short time before it all went straight to the PAIN!
There is no age that migraine specifically can start to occur in your life. Some people develop migraine in their 50’s and others as children. Whenever it happens I strongly recommend you find a migraine doctor or specialist. Not all neurologists or doctors have sufficient experience to deal effectively with migraines.
How do you keep hope alive when you have chronic migraines or a chronic illness? What does hope even mean? Is it wishing life was just the same as before you became ill? My dear friend says that “hope is a belief in a positive outcome. A positive outcome, not necessarily the one you expected or asked for.”
Focus on what you can do between migraines. Your outlook and how you perceive things counts.
You are important.
Some of our greatest humans in history became great despite having migraines. We currently have more help available then they ever did. When you find yourself getting frustrated around this condition, distract yourself and do something fun, even if it’s for 5 minutes.
Laugh or talk to someone like a professional counselor for migraine advice that can help.
You don’t have to do it all alone.
If you'd like some more help, I can recommend these 3 things:
Types of Migraines
What Are Migraines?