Migraines 101: Why they are more than just a headache

As the millions of Australians who suffer through migraines can attest, they are more common and debilitating than many of us realise.

Migraines cost the Australian economy around $30 billion a year in health costs and lost working hours, according to Painaustralia.

Almost five million Australians suffer from migraines, and about 71 per cent of those are women.

What is a migraine?

Migraine is a neurological condition believed to be caused by temporary changes in blood vessels and chemicals in the brain.

But it’s still not clear why some people get migraines and others don’t.

“Migraine consists of recurrent attacks of pain in the head – a pulsating pain that tends to affect one side or one part of the head,” explains Painaustralia chief executive Carol Bennett.

“People can feel nauseous, they may vomit and some people have sensitivity to light or sound.”

What causes migraines?

Women may be at greater risk of migraine because of hormones – they can start at menstruation and ease at menopause.

Some people have external triggers, which Headache Australia says can include foods such as chocolate, cheese, coffee, processed meats and additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and artificial sweetener aspartame.

Bright lights, loud noise, perfume, lack of sleep and stress can also be triggers.

Treatment for migraines

“The impacts of migraine can often be under-estimated and, for many people, migraines have a huge impact on quality of life, work and relationships,” says Carol.

She says a multidisciplinary approach to treating migraine is often most effective.

In less severe cases, over-the-counter medication like aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen may be enough to manage pain. Prescription pain medication can help more severe cases, as can anti-nausea medication.

Australian National University research has found in some cases, people who experience migraines aren’t getting the right support and treatment because they don’t know enough about the warning signs.

The study found one in five people who had migraine didn’t know about preventative medications, such as Botox.

“A lot of people have migraines and don’t realise they have it. Even when people see their GP it can be missed or undiagnosed,” says Dr Stephanie Goodhew, of ANU’s Research School of Psychology.

“If you have migraines talk to your GP, arm yourself with knowledge and ask for a referral to a neurologist.”

How to relieve and prevent migraines

“When a migraine occurs, rest in a quiet, dark room and let it run its course,” says Carol.

“Using a range of different care is also important. Seeing a physiotherapist to get some muscle relaxant therapy can help.

“If migraine is related to stress in your life then seeing a psychologist and using cognitive behavioural therapy to help manage the stress can be useful.”

Eating well, exercising and steering clear of any known triggers is also beneficial. Research has found that limiting caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks to one or two a day can also help.

You can also explore complementary therapies like acupuncture, massage and meditation may also provide some relief. A US study found meditating for 45 minutes about five times a week seems to lower migraine pain and frequency and help people feel more in control of their migraines.

Written by Sarah Marinos.