Migraines 101: Symptoms, Triggers, Treatment

There are promising new treatments on the horizon for sufferers.

Feb. 16, 2009 -- About 30 million people in the United States are believed to suffer from migraine headaches, with women three times more likely than men to experience them.

Unlike the typical tension headache experienced every now and then, migraines are often genetic and have a tendency to be physically disabling once set off by specific triggers.

Here's how to know if you are a sufferer and ways to catch a migraine before it begins.


The start of a migraine is usually noted by a change in vision or "aura," a blind spot or wavy lines in the left or right field of vision that grows larger. Severe, pulsing pain on one side of the head or face, which can last anywhere from a few hours to more than a day, is also common. In many cases the person afflicted will develop nausea and vomiting that is dramatically worsened by light and movement.

Migraines can also be only ocular, with all of the visual symptoms but no actual headache. In such a case, the person will have a blind spot, or feel a thickening or numbing of the tongue.


Migraines can be brought on by a variety of causes, including a lack of sleep, stress, alcohol use and even chocolate or other food. Hormonal changes in women, such as during menstruation or pregnancy, can also spark migraines. Triggers can vary from person to person, so it is helpful to keep a headache journal in order to identify what elicits a migraine in your own life.

Some people are affected by migraines only once or twice in their lifetime, though others suffer more frequently. In the rarest instances, migraines have been known to be chronic, even occurring on a daily basis.


Migraines are typically relieved with an anti-inflammatory pain reliever , such as Motrin or Alleve, along with a prescription triptan medication, which is used specifically for headaches.

Treximet is a new FDA-approved combination pill, which costs more than taking each separately, but fewer pills to take overall.

There are other medications you can take on a daily basis that can reduce the risk of getting a migraine -- antiseizure medications like Topamax, antidepressants like Elevil, heart medicines and beta blockers such as Inderal and calcium blockers such as Verapmil.

These medications aren't safe for everyone so your doctor would have to determine which one is right for you.

Another treatment now being utilized in effort to relieve chronic migraines (15 or more migraines a month) is Botox, best known for its cosmetic use to reduce wrinkles. Through injection, Botox paralyzes muscles of the scalp/forehead, lightening the muscle tension accompanying headaches.

There are some new treatments that may provide relief for sufferers in the future, although they still are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The first is Telcagepant, a drug that stops migraine pain right at the nerves, preventing them from firing. Telcagepant may receive approval from the FDA within a year or so.

The second new treatment is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a portable 2.5-pound device equipped with two noninvasive paddles that you apply to your head sending a magnet current at the onset of an aura. TMS interrupts the electrical storm, but studies have only been done on patients that get auras as warning of a migraine's impending arrival. Around the size of a hair dryer, TMS could cost around $2,000.


The easiest way to try to stop a migraine before it starts is to steer clear of any observed triggers that may generate one. There are also some medications that, when taken on a daily basis after consulting with a physician, may cut the risk of migraines in half, such as anti-seizure, antidepressants, heart medicines, beta blockers and calcium blockers. If your migraine is hormone-related, low dose patches of estrogen can also provide aid.

Migraine sufferers may also benefit from certain lifestyle alterations. Little things like getting a couple more hours of sleep or hitting the gym can help. Avoiding alcohol, quitting smoking and remaining more relaxed are also useful changes to keep headaches away.