Tackling the misery of migraine

Think a migraine is 'just another headache'? The debilitating condition affects millions but remains largely misunderstood - which Migraine Awareness Week aims to change.

 
 
 
  • A woman holding her head, with a migraine
    Abi Jackson
    By   | Writer
    Last updated: 07 September 2015, 13:11 BST

    With more than eight million people in the UK affected, migraine is more common than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined. Yet it's often badly misunderstood and awareness is low.

    As the Migraine Trust, a charity which supports people affected by migraine and funds research, points out, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises migraine as one of the most debilitating lifetime conditions. But a lot of people still think it's just a fancy word for a headache.

    The trust hopes Migraine Awareness Week, which this year runs from September 1 to 7, will dispel some of the myths surrounding the condition.

    Anybody can suffer from migraines, though they're more common among women, and while children can be affected, attacks usually start during teens.

    Currently there's no cure, but treatments are available which can help and, most crucially, understanding migraine can make a huge difference in managing it.

    Here's some expert tips to help you live with migraines.

     
     
     

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  • Woman holding her head with migraine
    Abi Jackson
    By   | Writer
    Last updated: 07 September 2015, 13:11 BST

    "Everybody gets headaches from time to time, but the difference with migraine is partly the severity - it's a much more acute, pounding painful headache, and there are other symptoms associated with it, like vomiting and sensitivity to light," says Dr Tim Woodman, medical director of policy and evidence for Bupa Health Funding.

    "You generally do feel very ill with migraine, whereas most other headaches are more of a nagging discomfort."

    Woodman, a former GP, suffers with migraine himself. He points out that while headaches are a main characteristic of the condition, the symptoms go far wider.

    "It's actually perfectly possible to have a migraine and not even have a headache," he adds. "Migraine is a whole complex of symptoms, things like visual discomfort, and pins and needles in your hands and feet."

    Migraine symptoms include:

    • pounding headache
    • flashing lights and blind spots before the eyes
    • feeling very hot or very cold
    • abdominal pain
    • sensitivity to light
    • temporary blindness
    • numbness
    • dizziness and vertigo
    • difficulty speaking
    • confusion
    • fainting
    • vomiting

     

     
     
     

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  • Woman at desk with migraine
    Abi Jackson
    By   | Writer
    Last updated: 07 September 2015, 13:11 BST

    The severity of symptoms varies greatly from person to person.

    A very mild migraine may not be too unbearable and might not prevent somebody from carrying out most daily tasks as usual, while severe migraines can be extremely debilitating and make work and socialising impossible.

    In fact, according to WHO figures, migraine is one of the 20 top causes of disability and, worldwide, 25 million days are lost from work or school every year.

    "You typically have a run-up period to the acute migraine, and then the run-down period afterwards, so the whole episode can take several days," says Woodman.

    However, while the pattern of symptoms and severity may vary from person to person, it's important to be aware that there is a pattern, as this could be key to managing your migraine.

     
     
     

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  • Young man talking to his GP
    Abi Jackson
    By   | Writer
    Last updated: 07 September 2015, 13:11 BST

    The first step is to see a doctor and get a concrete diagnosis. It's believed that around 50% of cases remain undiagnosed and untreated.

    Making a note of any pattern - Woodman suggests keeping a diary, noting when symptoms start, what you were doing at the time and anything you'd eaten - can help

    "There are a number of real reasons why it's important to get a diagnosis," says Woodman. "From my perspective as a former GP, the most important thing is that if you're experiencing symptoms that could be migraine, or frequent and severe headaches, you need to go and get these things checked out.

    "It's no good just assuming it's a migraine and taking something from over the counter, you need to be absolutely certain what's going on.

    "Headaches can have a range of causes and if there's another cause, you'll need to sort that out," he adds. "And having an official diagnosis is an important step towards managing the condition."

     
     
     

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  • Woman writing in a diary
    Abi Jackson
    By   | Writer
    Last updated: 07 September 2015, 13:11 BST

    This is where keeping a diary comes in especially handy, as familiarising yourself with the pattern of your migraines will help you identify triggers - and avoid them.

    "Because we don't really understand what causes migraine, we don't have an obvious cure," says Woodman. "However, an awful lot of the management of migraine is about avoiding triggers. If you're able to clearly identify these, you can effectively go for very long periods without a migraine.

    "For example, one of the classic triggers for migraine is red wine. I get migraine with Rioja, I don't get it with Merlot!"

    Triggers also vary, but examples include certain foods, hormones (in some women, attacks are linked with their menstrual cycle) and stress.

    Self-help is an important part of migraine management. Avoiding triggers can reduce attacks and also reduce dependence on medication.

    "It's unlikely you'll be able to eliminate migraine by avoiding triggers, but you can significantly reduce the number of attacks," says Woodman.

     
     
     

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  • Woman on a cross trainer
    Abi Jackson
    By   | Writer
    Last updated: 07 September 2015, 13:11 BST

    Taking positive steps to help manage migraine can have wider benefits too. Living with a painful and debilitating condition can be a stress in itself and it's not uncommon for sufferers to experience low moods.

    Depression is three times more common in people with migraine or severe headaches, according to WHO research.

    "If you're suffering from something quite debilitating and feel your mood's low, taking back control of the migraines may help you feel that you're starting to take control of your life generally," says Woodman.

    "That sort of empowerment will lift you, and that in turn could actually help reduce symptoms."

    Three simple steps to improve your migraines

    • regular exercise
    • reducing stress through avoidance
    • making time for relaxation

     

     
     
     

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