What is a migraine?

A migraine is a type of severe headache that often affects one side of your head. Migraines are usually accompanied by other side-effects, including visual disturbances, nausea and exhaustion.

Who gets migraines?

Migraines affect about fifteen per cent of adults and four per cent of children, so you might know someone who suffers from them even if you’ve never had a migraine yourself.

They’re most common in adults aged between 20 and 50 but most people who suffer from migraines usually experience their first one before they are 40 years old.

What are the symptoms of migraines?

The main symptom of a migraine is an intense headache, which often feels like a throbbing pressure that can move from one side of your head to the other.

Along with the headache, you might experience an increased sensitivity to light, sound and movement, as well as nausea and exhaustion.

Migraine symptoms can last from a few hours to a few days and you might feel tired for some time after a migraine attack.

What types of migraine are there?

There are two main types of migraine, with slightly different symptoms: migraines with aura (classic migraine) and migraines without aura (common migraine).

Migraine with aura

Classic migraines start with ‘warning signals’ called an aura. These can include:

  • Visual problems – flashing or flickering lights, zigzag patterns and blind spots
  • Numbness, stiffness or tingling in your neck, shoulders or limbs
  • Dizziness and problems with coordination
  • Difficulty concentrating and speaking.

Your symptoms can start anywhere between fifteen minutes and one hour before the headache itself. You might experience the aura and then only a fairly mild headache afterwards.

Migraine without aura

Unlike classic migraines, common migraines do not start with an aura. Your headache and the symptoms of nausea, light and sound sensitivity and tiredness all start at the same time. Movement usually makes the migraine worse.

Whichever type of migraine you experience you’ll probably feel the overwhelming urge to lie down in a darkened room until it passes.

What causes migraines?

The exact cause of migraines is not known but it’s thought that changes to chemicals in the brain might be responsible.

A message-sending chemical in the brain called serotonin, which everyone has, decreases when you have a migraine. It’s thought that the low levels of serotonin cause blood vessels in your brain to expand and contract; creating migraine symptoms.

Why your levels of serotonin drop in the first place is not yet known.

Some people find that certain things can trigger their migraines. Triggers can include particular foods, bright lights, stress and lack of sleep.

Women can experience ‘menstrual migraines’ which occur a few days before, during or a few days after their period.

How can migraines be treated?

Migraines can’t yet be cured but there are treatments that can ease the symptoms and pain a little bit.

Sometimes simply lying in a quiet, darkened room and taking regular painkillers, such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen, will be enough.

If you’re under 16 you shouldn’t take aspirin before checking with your GP. Whichever painkiller you take, make sure you read the instructions carefully first and check whether they are suitable for your age group.

It’s important to take the painkillers as soon as your migraine symptoms start, rather than waiting until the headache gets really bad when they will be less effective.

Make sure you only take the correct dosage and don’t mix your medications if they contain the same active ingredient, as this could lead to an accidental overdose, which is potentially very dangerous.

The best bet is to see your GP for advice about painkillers if you’re unsure.

Over-the-counter migraine treatments

As well as regular painkillers that can be taken for all kinds of mild to moderate pain, there are specific migraine medicines available to buy over-the-counter (in your local supermarket or pharmacy for example). Often these include ingredients to help you feel less nauseous, as well as painkillers.

The pharmacist may ask you some questions to find out whether you need to see your GP before you buy a particular medicine if you haven’t used it before.

If you’re under 16 or under 19 and in full-time education, prescriptions from your GP are free, so it’s worth asking your GP if the medicine you are buying can be prescribed free of charge.

Prescribed migraine treatments

If over-the-counter migraine treatments don’t work for you, you might need to make an appointment with your GP to find out what else could help.

There are lots of different available prescription treatments for migraines and your GP will discuss with you which one to use. You might find you need to try several treatments before discovering the right one for you.

Other migraine treatments

Some people find that keeping a diary can help them to identify migraine triggers, such as certain foods, situations, or times of the month. This means that they can then try and avoid certain things or at least be more prepared for situations which might trigger a migraine.

Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and relaxation therapy are not scientifically proven to have any effect on migraines, but some people find they help. It’s up to you whether you try this type of treatment, but remember it costs money and may not work for you.

Who can help?

Make an appointment to see your GP if you suffer from migraines and are not already receiving treatment.

Find out more about the symptoms, causes and treatment of migraines on the NHS and Bupa websites.

For free migraine information packs, research articles, migraine news and more, visit www.migrainetrust.org.

You can ring NHS Direct 0845 4647 for advice and information on any health topic and visit them online at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/.

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