Headache Education Center




Last updated on January 1st, 2021 at 05:14 am

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Worldwide, migraine affects more than 10-12% of the population, with approximately 1 billion migraineurs estimated worldwide. It is estimated that there are 39 million migraineurs in the US, accounting for 12% of the US population. Migraine affects 18% of women and 6% of men. Nearly 25% of U.S. households include someone with migraine.

In 2016, migraine was determined to be the 2nd leading cause of all global disability, and the 2nd leading cause of all neurological disease burden. Migraine accounts for 50% of all neurologic disability. Furthermore, chronic pain in general is the largest contributor to years lived with disability globally, and is associated with tremendous negative impacts on social, economic, and personal function.

In addition to the attack-related disability, many sufferers live in fear because their migraines disrupt their ability to work, go to school, partake in social activities, or care for their families, and this significantly limits their overall quality of life. More than 90% of migraine sufferers are unable to work or function normally during their attacks. American employers lose more than $20 billion each year as a result of 113 million lost workdays due to migraine. So clearly, migraine has significant negative impacts on the lives of patients and on society.

Migraine is an episodic headache lasting 4 to 72 hours if untreated or unsuccessfully treated. There must be 2 of the following 4 features present: a unilateral (one-sided) headache, pounding/throbbing/pulsating quality, moderate-to-severe pain intensity, and worsening by routine physical activity. There must also be 1 of the following 2 features present: nausea and/or vomiting, or both photophobia (sensitivity to light) and phonophobia (sensitivity to sound).

Approximately 20% of patients with migraine have neurological symptoms (aura) associated with their migraine. Those migraines are called migraine with aura (classic migraine), in contrast to migraine without aura occurring in 80% of patients (common migraine). The aura should last between 5-60 minutes and the headache commonly follows the aura within 1 hour. The most common type is visual aura and includes flashing lights, shimmering lines with areas of lost vision (scintillating scotoma), curved “c” shapes, squiggly lines, zig-zag lines, kaleidoscope colors, prisms, shapes, or other visual phenomena. The second most common type is sensory aura and consists of pins and needles or numbness in one area of the body on only one side, especially the face and arm/hand. The third most common type is speech and/or language aura and consists of trouble getting words out, or slurred speech.

There are less common types of aura as well. One of the less common types of aura is motor aura. This consists of a migraine with at least 1 of the common auras discussed above, as well as fully reversible motor weakness on 1 side of the body that lasts less than 72 hours. This type of migraine is called hemiplegic migraine. Brainstem aura is another less common type of aura. It consists of a migraine with at least 1 of the common auras discussed above, and at least 2 features including slurred speech, vertigo, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), hypacusis (hearing difficulty), diplopia (double vision), ataxia (unsteady, imbalanced walking such as an intoxicated appearance), and decreased level of consciousness. This type of migraine is called migraine with brainstem aura. Retinal aura is another less common type and consists of any of the visual disturbances mentioned above occurring clearly in only one eye. However, this is often difficult to differentiate between typical migraine with aura, which usually affects both eyes to some extent.

Chronic migraine is defined by headaches on 15 or more days per month for 3 or more months, with 8 of those days having more migrainous features. Patients that have a prior or current history of headaches such as migraine or tension-type headaches tend to be much more susceptible to developing medication overuse headache (rebound headache). Medication overuse headache is one of the most common causes of chronic daily headache (more than 15 days of headache per month) in the form of chronic migraine or chronic tension-type headache. This factor must be eliminated if present, and the headaches will never improve until a weaning detoxification from the overused medications happens. It can take 2-3 months for significant improvement to occur following detoxification, depending on medicine used, duration of use, frequency of use, and quantity of use. Preventive (daily medicines used to lessen the frequency and/or severity of headaches) and abortive (“as-needed” at headache onset) pain medications are also generally less effective in the setting of medication overuse headache. The overused medications are often taken for the headaches. However, these medicines are also commonly being used for some other type of body pain such as back pain, but inadvertently convert an infrequent headache to a frequent or daily headache. This is almost a guarantee to happen if there is a history of migraine headaches. You can read a more detailed discussion on rebound headache and how to break out of the cycle here.

As discussed above, overuse of certain medications will typically convert underlying episodic migraine to chronic migraine over time. Research has shown that medication overuse can transform episodic migraine (less than 15 days of headache per month) to chronic migraine (greater than 15 days of headache per month) if the following medications are used at the following frequencies:

  1. 10 or more days per month for at least 2-3 consecutive months of over the counter (OTC) pain medications (Tylenol, Excedrin, Acetaminophen, Aleve, Naproxen, Motrin, Advil, Ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs))
  2. 10 or more days per month for at least 2-3 consecutive months of triptans (Sumatriptan, Rizatriptan, Zolmitriptan, Almotriptan, Frovatriptan, Naratriptan, Eletriptan)
  3. 8 or more days per month for at least 2-3 months of any narcotic, opioid, or opiate medication (Vicodin, Norco, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Percocet, Tramadol, Ultram, Ultracet, Morphine, Codeine)
  4. 5 or more days per month for at least 2-3 months of any butalbital containing medication (Fioricet, Fiorinal, Esgic)