The Warning Signs of Migraine Headaches

A migraine is a painful headache that is severe enough to be debilitating. The pain of a migraine headache can last from a few hours to a few days and be accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, smells and sound. It has long been observed that this intense acute phase of migraine pain is not the only phase of a migraine attack, and there are often warning signs that a migraine headache is imminent. These migraine warning signs were explored in a June 7, 2011 article by Melinda Beck published in the Wall Street Journal.

A migraine sufferer may experience symptoms leading up to their migraine attack. The aura phase of a migraine attack occurs in some migraine sufferers, about 30 percent. During the aura phase, the migraine sufferer may see flashing lights in their visual field or other visual disturbances. The aura phase typically occurs right before the onset of the intense headache pain. A person may also feel some numbness or tingling during the aura phase, usually on one side of the body. The aura phase seems to be caused by an abnormal wave of electrical activity in the cortex of the brain, which has recently been visualized with brain imaging studies. Some migraine sufferers learn to recognize symptoms of the aura phase and know when a headache is coming on. At this point, it is typically too late to prevent a migraine headache because the aura phase may only last a few minutes, and the migraine is usually treated once it has already begun.

Lately, the phase that occurs before the aura phase, called the prodrome phase, has been under more investigation in regards to migraine headache treatment. There are some symptoms that, although vague and different from person to person, may clue someone in that they are going to have a migraine soon and allow them to try to prevent the migraine from occurring at all. These symptoms may show up a few hours before the headache starts, or even up two days before the headache onset. Some people experience mood changes, like irritability, fatigue or anxiety during the prodrome phase. Others experience intense cravings for specific foods or increased thirst. Others may notice that they can’t stop yawning. Statistics show that only about 30 percent of migraine sufferers recognize that they have prodrome phase symptoms. However, when a group of migraine sufferers are given a checklist with some of the possible symptoms listed, about 80 percent report that they recognize one or more. This indicates that some kind of prodrome phase symptoms are present in most migraine sufferers, but they may not always recognize the patterns and be aware that these vague symptoms are warning signs of a migraine.

When a person does recognize symptoms that indicate that a migraine is on its way, there are two possible approaches to trying to prevent the headache from causing severe, debilitating pain. The first approach involves medication that is normally used to treat a migraine once it has started, such as the drugs in the triptan class. It is not yet known whether these medications work in preventing a migraine before the headache actually starts, but there is some anecdotal clinical evidence from doctors and patients in support of this approach.

The second approach involves avoiding migraine triggers when you feel a migraine coming on. Some examples of known migraine triggers include foods like caffeine, alcohol, red wine, cheese and chocolate, sleep disturbances, hormone fluctuation, high levels of stress and abrupt changes in the weather. Not all of these things can be avoided, but not consuming foods that have a history of triggering your migraines is a good idea if you feel prodrome phase symptoms. In addition, decreasing stress level if you are feeling like a headache is coming on may help prevent a migraine from occurring. If you are a migraine sufferer, it may be helpful to identify your migraine triggers by making a note of the conditions that surround the onset of your migraine, such as what you ate, how much sleep you got, what the weather was like and whether it was a stressful day.

Researchers focusing on migraine headaches are trying to develop and test new migraine drugs that are better at preventing migraines from occurring in the first place. Better recognition of prodrome phase symptoms can make this type of treatment more effective.

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