Understanding Chronic Migraines: Symptoms and Treatments
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Chronic migraines are debilitating for those who suffer from them, and they’re more common than many people think. According to the Migraine Research Foundation¹, 39 million people in the U.S., including children, experience migraines. But the biggest problem is that many people mistake their painful migraines for nothing more than a headache.
If you’re experiencing painful headaches, your symptoms could actually be chronic migraines – and you need to know how to tell the difference between a simple ache and a serious migraine. Understanding the symptoms of a migraine will help you find the right treatment for your pain.
Migraines differ from other types of headaches in one very clear way: migraine bring throbbing aches that typically affect one side of the head. Migraines can be accompanied by visual disturbances and nausea as well. If you suffer a migraine attack, you might have to miss work or school because of it.
According to the Migraine Trust², migraine attacks can often be divided into four main stages, each with its own unique symptoms. The four stages can be identified as:
1. Prodrome Stage
The prodrome stage of a migraine attack is the premonitory phase that lets you know that a migraine is coming. During this phase, you might experience specific physical symptoms such as feeling tired, mood changes, craving sweet foods, a stiff neck, and thirst. The prodrome stage can last anywhere from one to 24 hours.
2. Aura Stage
The aura stage normally occurs just prior to the onset of a migraine’s aches and may cause numerous neurological symptoms. This phase can last from five to 60 minutes. Some people experience changes in the brain that cause visual disturbances, like seeing stars, sparkles, dark spots, zigzag lines, or colored spots. People may also experience dizziness, weakness, tingling, or numbness. Speech and hearing disturbances might also happen during the aura stage. Some people may experience confusion and memory changes.
3. Attack Stage
The attack stage occurs with the onset of the headache, and it’s the main stage of a migraine. The pain of the headache during the attack is very severe and can feel almost unbearable. Normally, the pain is throbbing, and it can occur on either side of your head or both sides simultaneously. It might also happen across your forehead, but it rarely occurs in the back of the head. During this stage, you may experience nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to touch or light. You may also find that the headache worsens if you move.
4. Postdrome Stage
The postdrome stage is the period of recovery following the migraine attack. During this phase, you might experience feelings similar to a hangover. These feelings may last for several hours or even days. During the postdrome phase, you might experience symptoms that mirror those you experienced during the prodrome phase.
Medication for Migraines
The Mayo Clinic³ reports that the medications used to treat chronic migraines fall into two categories: pain relievers and preventive medications. If your headaches are diagnosed as migraines, your doctor may recommend that you take pain relievers as soon as you experience the first signs of a migraine. Some over-the-counter pain relievers might help if you experience mild to moderate migraines. These include ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and medications specifically marketed for migraines that include a combination of caffeine and pain relievers.
There are prescription pain relievers your doctor might prescribe if you experience severe migraines or the over-the-counter pain relievers don't work. Triptan medications work by constricting your blood vessels and interfering with your body's pain pathways. Your doctor might also prescribe one of a class of medications called ergots, which are made of a combination of caffeine and ergotamine, but these aren’t as effective as triptan medications.
Other prescription pain relievers your doctor might prescribe include opioids and glucocorticoids. Since opioids are highly addictive, they might not be prescribed unless other pain relievers have failed. Glucocorticoids may be prescribed in combination with other pain relievers to increase their pain-relieving properties.
In addition to pain relievers, your doctor may recommend preventive medications to help prevent future migraines. People who experience frequent migraines, attacks that last for 12 or more hours and prolonged auras are candidates for these preventive medications. These might include beta blockers to help to reduce high blood pressure or anti-seizure medications to reduce the frequency of your migraine attacks. Finally, your doctor could recommend Botox injections once every three months to help to prevent migraines.
Alternative Treatment Options
In addition to medical treatments, there are a number of alternative treatments and lifestyle changes that might help you manage your migraines. Some non-traditional treatments that might help include:
- Massage therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
Self-care can help you to reduce stress and to relax, making it less likely that you will suffer migraine attacks.
The American Migraine Foundation⁴ also recommends a few dietary and lifestyle changes for chronic migraines sufferers. You should avoid eating trigger foods such as chocolate and alcohol and limit your intake of caffeine to no more than one caffeinated beverage daily. Diet recommendations include choosing whole grains over processed and refined grains and an increase in vegetables and fruits. You should also avoid red meats and saturated fats in favor of healthy fats or white meats.
You may also need to make lifestyle changes to prevent migraines. If you smoke or don’t exercise regularly, quitting smoking and developing a fitness routine can both prevent future migraines.
Find the Best Migraine Treatment Option for You
If you suffer from migraines, particularly chronic migraines, it’s important to understand that these types of headaches are going to reoccur often – it’s their nature. When you have a migraine, it’s a good idea to record your symptoms, any triggers leading up to it, and its length to help your doctor determine what you’re experiencing. This kind of information can help you and your doctor choose the treatments that might work best for you.
Migraines don’t have to stop you from living life to its fullest. If you want to prevent or stop chronic migraines, make an appointment with a doctor to discuss the possible treatment options. There are so many different possibilities available, from prescription and over-the-counter medications to natural and alternative treatments, that you’re sure to find a solution.
Like anything, it's always a good idea to be aware of the latest research. We recommend comparing at least 3 or 4 options before making a final decision. Doing a search online is typically the quickest, most thorough way to discover all the pros and cons you need to keep in mind.