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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 6 women, have migraines, but many have been told mistakenly that they have a sinus or tension headache. Foods, stress, and hormones can be migraine triggers.

About 20% of people who suffer from migraines will have an aura about 20 minutes to an hour before the pain. They may see flashing lights, wavy lines, or dots, or they may have blurry vision or blind spots. These are called “classic migraines.”



Throbbing pain typically occurs on one side near the temples, forehead, and eyes. Migraines can make you very sensitive to light, sound, or mild exertion, such as climbing the stairs. Many people have nausea, vomiting, or vision problems. The pain can be disabling, forcing people to miss work or other activities.

Some people may have a change in mood before a migraine begins. They may become more excitable or irritable or depressed. Others may detect a sensation, such as a funny smell or taste. They may feel more fatigued, yawn frequently, or experience muscle tension. About 1 in 4 people experience this prodrome phase, which can occur as early as 24 hours before any head pain.



Migraines may be set off by some specific cause, such as flickering lights. This could be a reflection from snow or water or from fluorescent bulbs or television or movie screens. Wearing polarizing sunglasses outside and using daylight spectrum fluorescent bulbs inside may help.




An Advantage of Aging

Migraines most often strike in the prime of life – between the ages of 20 and 60. While elderly people still get migraines, they often decrease in severity and frequency as we age, or even disappear entirely. Good management of migraines may help you get rid of your migraines for good.




Migraine Miseries Push Patients to Ways of Coping



Graphic: Stuart Bradford




The New York Times, July 26, 2011, by Tara Parker-Pope  —  The news that the presidential candidate Michele Bachmann suffers from severe migraines has touched off a national discussion about a surprisingly common disorder that is little understood and often undertreated.

Migraine patients are coming forward with their stories. And while each one is different, they have two common threads: suffering and trying to cope.

For some, a migraine represents throbbing head pain and nausea so severe they retreat to a darkened room for a day or more. For others, it’s about a scary moment, driving on the highway when a migraine-induced aura or vision change forces them to pull over.

“Imagine someone having driven a nail straight through your head,” said Craig Partridge, 50, chief scientist for a high-tech research company in East Lansing, Mich., who began having migraines in his late teens. “And then they periodically tap on it to remind you it’s there. It’s that painful.”

More than 10 percent of adults and children suffer from migraine — which is three times as common in women and girls as in men and boys — and the Migraine Research Foundation reports that nearly a quarter of households are affected. The World Health Organization ranks migraine among the top 20 most debilitating health conditions; more than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during an attack, which can last for hours or even days.

Some migraine sufferers say the attacks are so debilitating they couldn’t imagine taking on a job with significant responsibility. But others note that years of experience and new drug treatments have helped them find ways to cope. Some say the condition forced them to take better care of themselves and adopt healthful behaviors, like getting enough sleep and learning to manage stress.

Mr. Partridge has learned to avoid caffeine and bright lights, and is vigilant about wearing sunglasses in strong sunlight. Years of taking ibuprofen to treat headaches led to an ulcer. Eventually, he learned that a magnesium supplement reduced the frequency of his headaches, and now he gets only about three a year.

“As far as I can tell, everyone is a little different,” he said. “Some people have auras, but I never had auras. I get tunnel vision. My tongue starts to get heavy and I have trouble talking.”

Kat Smith, a 47-year-old mother of three in Bryn Mawr, Pa., remembers her teenage brother suffering terribly from migraines, but she never experienced them until a bike accident in her 20s. Then, after the birth of her son, she had migraines “regularly and fiercely” about 12 times a month. She discovered that small amounts of alcohol and vigorous physical activity acted as a trigger.

“I was a fairly carefree person, but I became rigid, very disciplined with myself,” she said. “It seemed I had to eliminate things that other people associated with joy. I had to reconstruct my life as a person of migraine after accepting that these weren’t going to go away.”

She adapted, giving up ice hockey and aerobics and switching to yoga. But sometimes she pushes her limits. This weekend she took part in a vigorous dance class and was punished with a migraine.

“I’ll do something incredibly vigorous and physical, and it will feel so good,” she said. “That night I will get a massive migraine.”

For many patients, including Ms. Smith, a class of migraine drugs called triptans have been a godsend, helping to cut short the pain. Triptans work by causing blood vessels in the brain to constrict and change blood flow, and can often stop a migraine completely or reduce its severity if taken in the early minutes of an attack.

Other patients take daily treatments to prevent migraine from setting in. Barbara Thompson, a 59-year-old communications specialist in Manhattan, uses Topamax, a seizure drug that has been shown to prevent migraine. An attack sometimes “breaks through” despite the daily dose, and on those days she uses a triptan drug.

“Often I get them when I’m at work,” she said. “I find that I get more quiet, and I have to focus more intently on what I’m doing. It’s a more internal day — I don’t have a better way of putting it.”

In a video that went viral, the television reporter Serene Branson babbled gibberish last winter during a live report from the Grammy Awards. At first, it seemed as if she were having a stroke on live television, but her doctor later concluded that a complex migraine had rendered her unable to form words.

Some migraine sufferers, including Ms. Bachmann, experience pain so severe they go the emergency room. But a recent review of emergency room doctors in Ontario found that patients were rarely treated with the proper drugs for migraine, according to a report last month in the journal Pain Research & Management.

The data suggests that more education is needed.

“If it’s not well controlled with the right combination of preventative or acute therapy, it can be very disabling,” said Dr. Satnam Nijjar, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins Headache Center. “It’s probably the most common cause for time missed from work in the U.S.”

Robert Dalton, executive director of the National Headache Foundation in Chicago, says that while migraines can be impairing, the larger problem is that many sufferers aren’t getting proper medical care.

“What we want to make sure people understand,” he said, “is that it’s a debilitating disease when it’s not managed properly.”



Alternative Therapy: Biofeedback

Biofeedback and relaxation training can give you relief that is similar to the help you get from medications. Biofeedback uses a monitor to train you to recognize the onset of muscle tension and changes in body temperature that are signals of stress.


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