Tips to manage your migraines

Oct 27, 2008 at 1:02 p.m. ET

Nearly 30 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches - and more than two-thirds of them are women. Migraines are a debilitating neurological condition characterized by extreme sensitivity to light and sound, extreme throbbing in one part of the head, nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances. Does this sound like the gut-wrenching headaches you or a loved one is enduring? Keep reading to learn what you can do to manage your migraines.

Woman with Headache

What causes migraines?

According to Dr Merle Diamond, co-director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, Illinois, migraines are a genetic disorder in the brain that, for the majority of migraine sufferers, is inherited.

"You have a 50 to 60 percent chance of suffering migraines if one of your parents has migraines. If both of your parents have migraines, your chance increases to 75 percent," says Dr Diamond. "However, there are other causes, such as head and neck trauma, that can cause migraines. Your environment and, certainly, how you live your life can have an effect."

Keep in mind that there is a difference between the etiology of migraines (which is hardwired into the brain) and the triggers that put a migraine into motion. Dr Diamond says, "A person with migraines has a more sensitive nervous system, which is extremely impacted by changes in hormones, lack of sleep, skipping meals, red wine, smoke, stress or other triggers."

Dr Diamond explains, "These triggers lead to changes in the brain, which turn on the brainstem, which dilates blood vessels and causes inflammation, which causes the pain."

Don't live with your migraine pain

People often make the mistake of thinking their migraines are just everyday headaches.

Pam Oliver, professional sports broadcaster and migraine sufferer, endured over two decades of crippling headaches, starting in her 20s. "I wasn't properly diagnosed until recently. Early in my career, when I was 23, I started having excruciating headaches that were both personally and professionally debilitating," she says. "I figured the headaches were caused by something I was doing, or that I wasn't adapting well to situational stressors."

Oliver sought relief through over the counter medications as well as from medical professionals. The medications she took were not migraine-specific and offered only temporary relief. "Even if you go to the hospital emergency room because your headache is unbearable, all you are going to get is a narcotic that relieves your pain until it is out of your system," says Oliver. Since being diagnosed, she has found relief with her current treatment regime.

"It is natural to blame yourself for your migraines, but pain is not a natural state to be in. Don't be a trooper. Find out if you are a migraine sufferer and get the right treatment," advises Oliver.

The heart of the matter

Another crucial reason to get diagnosed is that women with migraines are at an increased risk of ischemic stroke and cardiovascular disease.

A recent study published in the medical journal Neurology, based on the latest findings from the Women's Health Study (WHS), indicates women who have migraine with aura – in addition to a specific genetic marker – have a 3-fold increased risk for cardiovascular disease and a 4-fold increased risk for stoke compared to women with no gene variant nor a history of migraine.

Men get migraines, too

Despite the prevalence of migraines in women, men also suffer from migraines. Football legend and Fox sports broadcaster Troy Aikman had headaches for years before finally getting diagnosed with migraines.

"Unlike some people with debilitating migraines, I primarily experienced nausea, so I just dealt with it," says Aikman. "Five or six years after I retired from the NFL, I went to a doctor because I was getting headaches every week." Aikman says his migraines are triggered from flying – and his career requires frequent flying – as well as cigarette smoke.

Men have a tendency to "gut through" pain, even when it's terribly debilitating. Aikman says, "There is no need to suffer. See your doctor to determine if you have migraines – the pain you have may not be due to a simple headache."

Further, a study published in the April 2007 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine suggests migraine may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, particularly myocardial infarction, in men. The results are based on the Physicians' Health Study, a study of over 20,000 men aged 40 to 84, which also indicates that men who have a history of migraine are more likely to have hypertension and unfavorable cholesterol profiles.

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