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How to figure out your migraine triggers

How to figure out your migraine triggers

Migraine is a very common disorder. If you don’t get them yourself, chances are you know someone who does. According to The Migraine Trust, around one in seven of us get migraines, yet fewer than half of us who do are happy with our treatment.

So, rather than trying to treat a migraine once it's started, wouldn't it be better to try to prevent attacks? Working out what triggers yours could give you a better chance of doing just that.

I've had migraines for most of my adult life and over the years they got progressively worse. My doctor prescribed tablets called sumatriptan for me to take at the onset of an attack. Most people tolerate the drug well, but I found that it didn't always help with my migraines and I suffered from side-effects, too.

So I struggled on, using only paracetamol and ibuprofen to try to keep the pain away. Only that did nothing for the blurred vision, the exhaustion or the odd sensation in my jaw that made me feel like my teeth were falling out, which came with my attacks.

Then, I had the migraine that changed everything.

I was at a toddler group with my 2-year-old when I was suddenly walloped with a migraine with aura, which is a visual disturbance or other symptoms affecting the nervous system. For me, that meant my vision was pixelated and bits of it were missing. It was like the world in front of me was a fuzzy jigsaw puzzle with pieces forced together in the wrong places.

Thankfully, my vision returned and I got myself - and my son - out of the toddler group before the agonising headache hit. But that moment of sitting in a sea of children feeling blinded and helpless was enough to make me do something about it.

I learned about migraine triggers and how to avoid mine. Which means that, thankfully, now I avoid most of my migraines, too.

What is a migraine?

Migraine is a neurological disorder which causes symptoms like severe headaches, nausea and sickness, and visual disturbances.

If you have headaches but you don't get nausea, vomiting, photophobia (sensitivity to light) or phonophobia (sensitivity to sound), they're not migraines.

There's ongoing research into the root cause of migraines, but experts do know that it's usually genetic. So if you get migraines, someone else in your family has probably had them, too.

There's no cure for migraine but that doesn't mean you have to suffer. If you avoid your migraine triggers, which are things that you're sensitive to and can bring on an attack, you'll be in the best position to avoid migraines, too.

Common triggers include things like dehydration, getting too much or too little sleep, eating badly or not enough, too much screen time and your menstrual cycle.

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Tracking your triggers

Migraine triggers can be different for everyone, so in order to maximise your chances of avoiding yours you need to work out what brings on your attacks.

The easiest way to do that is by keeping a migraine diary for three months. Write down anything that's going on in your life which could be linked to your migraines, from getting up too early in the morning to eating citrus fruit.

Keep track of your migraines in your diary, too, then look for patterns. But be aware that triggers usually don't work alone.

"There are often multiple things going on at once; for example, I've seen a number of women who say they're fine with alcohol, except when they're on their periods," says Professor Paul Booton, headache specialist at The National Migraine Centre.

When I started keeping a migraine diary I found that my migraines often followed a bad night's sleep, or happened on days when I was having a lot of caffeine and not eating properly.

So I changed my ways. Now, I try my best to make sure I get enough sleep and I have regular meals and snacks throughout the day. I've switched to decaf coffee, too.

Isn't chocolate a migraine trigger?

Many people talk about getting migraines after eating chocolate but there isn't much evidence to support that.

So why does there seem to be a connection? Migraines come on in stages. Your migraine actually starts before the headache or aura kicks in, during the migraine prodrome stage.

"One of the classic prodromal symptoms is the munchies," says Booton.

This means that by the time you're grabbing for chocolate, your migraine is already on the way and nibbling on the sweet stuff is a symptom, not a cause.

If this happens to you, look back further in your diary and see if other things have triggered your attack.

Most importantly, when you discover what your triggers are, do your best to avoid them.

Little lifestyle changes like drinking enough water, eating regular meals and getting proper sleep can make a massive difference.

Finally, if you need some help managing your migraines, take your diary to your doctor.


Understanding and Treating Your Migraine by  is available for pre-order from White Owl Books

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