Migraine
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Migraine

Migraine need not dominate your life, it can be managed, but the first step is to recognize what you are suffering from -- and that children as young as 8 can suffer from it too.

A migraine headache is a form of vascular headache. Migraine headache is caused by a combination of vasodilatation (enlargement of blood vessels) and the release of chemicals from nerve fibers that coil around the blood vessels. During a migraine attack, the temporal artery enlarges. (The temporal artery is an artery that lies on the outside of the skull just under the skin of the temple.) Enlargement of the temporal artery stretches the nerves that coil around the artery and causes the nerves to release chemicals. The chemicals cause inflammation, pain, and further enlargement of the artery. The increasing enlargement of the artery magnifies the pain.

Migraine attacks commonly activate the sympathetic nervous system in the body. The sympathetic nervous system is often thought of as the part of the nervous system that controls primitive responses to stress and pain, the so-called "fight or flight" response. The increased sympathetic nervous activity in the intestine causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Sympathetic activity also delays emptying of the stomach into the small intestine and thereby prevents oral medications from entering the intestine and being absorbed. The impaired absorption of oral medications is a common reason for the ineffectiveness of medications taken to treat migraine headaches. The increased sympathetic activity also decreases the circulation of blood, and this leads to pallor of the skin as well as cold hands and feet. The increased sympathetic activity also contributes to the sensitivity to light and sound sensitivity as well as blurred vision.

Migraine afflicts 28 million Americans, with females suffering more frequently (17%) than males (6%). Missed work and lost productivity from migraine create a significant public burden. Nevertheless, migraine still remains largely undertreated and underdiagnosed. Less than half the sufferers are diagnosed by their doctors.

Triggers
A migraine trigger is any factor that causes a headache in individuals who are prone to develop headaches. Only a small proportion of migraine sufferers, however, clearly can identify triggers. Examples of triggers include stress, sleep disturbances, fasting, hormones, bright or flickering lights, odors, cigarette smoke, alcohol, aged cheeses, chocolate, monosodium glutamate, nitrites, aspartame, and caffeine. For some women, the decline in the blood level of estrogen during the onset of menstruation is a trigger for migraine headaches. The interval between exposure to a trigger and the onset of headache varies from hours to two days. Exposure to a trigger does not always lead to a headache. Conversely, avoidance of triggers cannot completely prevent headaches. Different migraine sufferers respond to different triggers, and any one trigger will not induce a headache in every person who has migraine headaches.

Sleep
Disturbances such as sleep deprivation, too much sleep, poor quality of sleep, and frequent awakening at night are associated with both migraine and tension headaches, whereas improved sleep habits have been shown to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. Sleep also has been reported to shorten the duration of migraine headaches.

Fasting
Fasting possibly may precipitate migraine headaches by causing the release of stress-related hormones and lowering blood sugar. Therefore, migraine sufferers should avoid prolonged fasting.

Bright lights
Bright lights and other high intensity visual stimuli can cause headaches in healthy subjects as well as patients with migraine headaches, but migraine patients seem to have a lower than normal threshold for light-induced pain. Sunlight, television, and flashing lights all have been reported to precipitate migraine headaches.

Caffeine
Caffeine is contained in many food products (cola, tea, chocolates, coffee) and OTC analgesics. Caffeine in low doses can increase alertness and energy, but caffeine in high doses can cause insomnia, irritability, anxiety, and headaches. The over-use of caffeine-containing analgesics causes rebound headaches. Furthermore, individuals who consume high levels of caffeine regularly are more prone to develop withdrawal headaches when caffeine is stopped abruptly.

Chocolate, wine, tyramine, MSG, nitrites and aspartame
Chocolate has been reported to cause migraine headaches, but scientific studies have not consistently demonstrated an association between chocolate consumption and headaches. Red wine has been shown to cause migraine headaches in some migraine sufferers, but it is not clear whether white wine also will cause migraine headaches. Tyramine (a chemical found in cheese, wine, beer, dry sausage, and sauerkraut) can precipitate migraine headaches, but there is no evidence that consuming a low-tyramine diet can reduce migraine frequency. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been reported to cause headaches, facial flushing, sweating, and palpitations when consumed in high doses on an empty stomach. This phenomenon has been called Chinese restaurant syndrome. Nitrates and nitrites (chemicals found in hotdogs, ham, frankfurters, bacon and sausages) have been reported to cause migraine headaches. Aspartame, a sugar-substitute sweetener found in diet drinks and snacks, has been reported to trigger headaches when used in high doses for prolonged periods.

Female hormones
Some women who suffer from migraine headaches experience more headaches around the time of their menstrual periods. Other women experience migraine headaches only during the menstrual period. The term "menstrual migraine" is used mainly to describe migraines that occur in women who have almost all of their headaches from two days before to one day after their menstrual periods. Declining levels of estrogen at the onset of menses is likely to be the cause of menstrual migraines. Decreasing levels of estrogen also may be the cause of migraine headaches that develop among users of birth control pills during the week that estrogens are not taken. 

The Mayo Clinic has good definitions and advice.

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