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Managing Migraines

A normal headache can be a nuisance – tension or sinus headaches are bad enough, but a migraine can stop you completely in your tracks…..

One in eight people suffer from migraines in the UK, two-thirds of them, women. An occasional sufferer myself, having finally unearthed a number of ways to manage them, I thought it was about time to share my findings.

A migraine is an excruciating headache, often on just one side of the head, felt as a throbbing, searing pain. Usually accompanied by an increased sensitivity to light, noises or smells, with an unending wave of nausea, the pain ranges from moderate to severe, seriously impacting the ability to function normally.

Experts are not entirely sure what causes a migraine – the current theory is that migraine sufferers may inherit a brain that is genetically more hyperexcitable than people who don’t have migraines. It appears that when exposed to certain smells, sounds, weather changes, hormonal influences, stress or changes to sleep schedules, these all have a neurological impact on the brain cells, triggering electrical and vascular changes that lead to a dilation of the blood vessels. As the latter does not always equate to pain in the human body, this is why sufferers tend to find standard analgesics having little or no effect.

Due to the genetic connection, if one of your parents has migraines, you have a 50 % chance of having them too; if both do, this increases to 70%. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are several stages in a migraine and once you become familiar with them, you can learn how to manage them effectively enough to head off an attack well before it starts or certainly reduce its severity if it does indeed get a grip.

About 70% of migraine sufferers experience a “prodrome”, which is the first phase of a migraine. The prodrome is a set of warning symptoms that occur during the 12 to 24 hours leading up to the headache, when chemical changes are going on in the brain, particularly relating to dopamine.

Symptoms include hyperactivity or sluggishness, craving sweet or salty foods, irritability, muscle stiffness and yawning. Certain over-the-counter medicines can help in the prodrome stage to head off a migraine – your pharmacist can advise if you wish to take this pre-emptive approach. Available on prescription are tryptamine-based drugs that constrict blood vessels in the brain and relieve the swelling, which is the other option if you wish to discuss this with your doctor.

My favoured route, if you can do without the meds, is always to take the natural approach by:-

  • avoiding, or at least reducing, the 3 Cs: caffeine, chocolate and cheese can all trigger migraines, including MSG for those of you who like the late night Chinese take-aways!
  • staying hydrated: drink 5 to 6 glasses of water throughout the day.
  • not skipping meals: breakfast is especially important to get your day off to a good start – make sure your meals contain a decent amount of protein.
  • using fruit to stabilise blood sugar: eat fruit during the day and a piece before bedtime is excellent to avoid any risk of a morning headache.
  • paying attention to hormonal changes: keep an eye on your potential monthly triggers, (whether you’re male or female!) and keeping a headache diary can prove really useful in identifying cyclical patterns.
  • taking a B-complex vitamin: research shows that taking 400mg riboflavin daily for three months cuts migraine attacks by half.
  • establishing a sleep routine: get up and go to bed as near as possible to the same time each day.
  • staying active: learn to enjoy that much underacted activity we call respiration! Be it housework, jogging, yoga, swimming or walking, make sure the breathing is deep and the flow of oxygen, high.

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