With Migraine Awareness Week taking place in September, we look at what’s being done to clear our heads
Isuddenly get overwhelming cravings for chocolate and feel the tension in my shoulders increasing. When I wake up the next day, I am welcomed with a pounding headache. If this sounds familiar, you are probably one of the estimated six million people in the UK who experience migraines.
According to The Migraine Trust it is estimated that one in seven of us suffer from the debilitating headaches, with 190,000 attacks each day in the UK, costing the NHS £150m a year. It’s often dismissed in society as ‘just a headache’ because it’s intermittent, but many find themselves disabled during an attack.
‘We don’t actually know why people get migraines,’ says Una Farrell of the Migraine Trust. ‘We do know it’s genetic, and we know there are triggers for the attacks and the migraine brain doesn’t like change.’
For some, these changes are hormonal, or triggered by food or drink. ‘It can be changes to routine, something as simple as going on holiday,’ adds Una. ‘In terms of food, it’s important to work out if the food triggered the migraine or something you ate as a result of a craving at the start of an attack. It’s a threshold condition: one trigger on its own might not be enough to cause an attack, but say if you’re stressed and then you don’t sleep, the two together can be enough.’
A migraine starts around 24 hours before you feel the pain, explains Una, which is called the prodrome phase. You might feel tired or stressed, or experience food cravings. Around a quarter of people have an aura, a visual disturbance or tingling. The pain stage can last anything from 15 minutes to three days. Throbbing pain can be accompanied with sensitivity to light and sound, brain fog and nausea. Migraine sufferers often find some respite in a darkened room. Once this finishes the last stage is the postdrome stage, which can last anything from three hours to 24 hours and leave sufferers feeling fatigued or even euphoric.
It’s really important to have a diary and work out the patterns. ‘Try and avoid the triggers and manage things like stress,’ Una says. ‘Look at your lifestyle, your eating and sleeping patterns, your commute, or even how you sit at work and your screen time. There’s a certain amount of self-management, but do discuss this with your doctor.’ Fortunately, things have moved on from ancient remedies. In prehistoric times, a migraine was treated by drilling a hole into the skull with the aim of releasing evil spirits.
There is hope. Botox has proved effective, nerve stimulation treatment has shown benefits, and new drugs are being developed. During a migraine attack calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) is released, activating nerves that relay headache and facial pain signals to the brain. CGRP antibody medication is the first of a new generation of drugs developed specifically to target these substances and neutralise them.
For sufferers it has been described as ‘life changing’, with one user saying: ‘My life has changed beyond recognition. I have been given the opportunity to live again.’
See more at migrainetrust.org
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