Getting a-head on migraines

How many times have you felt like a migraine has struck unawares and left you knocked for six? Chances are most of us have, at some point in our lives, been affected by what we have assumed is a migraine.

How many times have you felt like a migraine has struck unawares and left you knocked for six? Chances are most of us have, at some point in our lives, been affected by what we have assumed is a migraine.

It's certainly a condition that can be very debilitating, affecting one in four women and about one in 12 men at some point in their lives - and, importantly, it's also commonly misunderstood. This week marks Migraine Awareness Week, which aims to raise awareness across the UK about the condition, and encourage those affected to seek information and advice to help manage their symptoms.

Migraines vs tension-type headaches - what's the difference?

Let's start off by getting some misunderstandings out of the way to clear our heads, so to speak! Unfortunately a lot of people who have tension-type headaches talk about having 'migraines', and when I ask my patients why they use this term, they often tell me it's because they assume any headache that's bad is a migraine.

At the other end of the spectrum, many people who do have migraine don't realise that's what they're suffering from, because they assume they need to have the flashing lights or blurred vision of a 'classical' migraine aura, or need to have headache only on one side of their head, for a diagnosis of migraine to be made.

In fact, migraines are different from tension-type headaches, which most of us get at some point in our lives. There are lots of different forms of migraine, and only about one in four sufferers experiences an 'aura' before their headache starts.

What's more, many people with migraine get headaches which don't start, and certainly don't stay, on one side of their head. You may be diagnosed with migraines if you have headaches which have at least two of these characteristics:

  • on one side of your head
  • pulsing headache
  • moderate or severe pain, enough to make it hard for you to keep going with everyday activities
  • pain which is made worse by routine daily activities

And during your headaches you get:

  • feeling and/or being sick and/or
  • sensitivity to light and/or noise

What help is available?

It's important to get the correct diagnosis, as some of the treatments used for migraine are different to those used for other forms of headache. In addition, migraines are very often triggered by things going on in your life, and 76-95% of sufferers report triggers. Stress tops this trigger list and other common factors include not eating, weather changes and sleep disturbances.

Avoiding, or at least minimising these triggers, can make a great deal of difference to the frequency with which you get migraine attacks. Because triggers vary so much from person to person, the best way to work out your personal triggers is often to keep a diary. You do need to be realistic - if you discover a single trigger that you can avoid without turning your life upside down, you may be able to stop most of your migraine attacks.

More often, however, you'll find that several different factors come together to trigger attacks. You shouldn't feel guilty if you can't control all your attacks, and you shouldn't hesitate to speak to your GP. Many migraine sufferers find that a combination of medication and lifestyle changes are needed to bring their condition under control.

When it comes to migraines, don't assume you're alone. Help is out there, if you have a head to ask for it.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.