Migraines are a very intense type of headache that are often accompanied by other symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, as well as neurological symptoms such as visual disturbances, numbness or tingling, speech disturbances (slurred speech, difficulty getting words out), weakness, vertigo, cognitive dysfunction or “cognitive fog”, among other things.
According to the ICHD3 diagnostic criteria, 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 25% 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 75% of patients (common migraine).
Migraines tend to be more prevalent in women than in men, with a 3:1 ratio. A common risk factor for migraines often involves family history, but not for everyone. If one parent has migraine, there’s about a 40% chance their child will. If both parents have migraine, that risk increases to around 90%. People who suffer from migraines report intense feelings of pain, including a pulsating/throbbing sensation. This often occurs on 1 side of the head, but can also involve both sides. Exercise and activity during a migraine will often make it worse. Migraine is usually associated with nausea, and/or sensitivity to light (photophobia) and sound (phonophobia) Migraines often come in different phases, which are called prodrome, aura, the headache phase, and postodome, but not everyone gets all 4 migraine phases:
1) The prodromal phase of a migraine often marks the beginning of a migraine attack and can happen over a period of a few hours ranging to a few days. Some of the symptoms include irritability and depression; food cravings; yawning and tiredness; and fatigue or muscle stiffness. Some patients report their prodrome as just a difficult to describe feeling that they recognize as an early warning sign of an impending migraine. Not every migraine attack includes the prodromal phase.
2) The aura phase of a migraine doesn’t necessarily always happen in every migraine attack, and only about 25% of patients with migraine get aura. Historically, those that get aura are called “classical migraine”, whereas “common migraine” refers to the more common variety of migraine which isn’t associated with aura. A large number of people who have migraines report that during the aura phase, they experience loss of sight, numbness, and other symptoms. Visual aura (loss of vision, jagged lines, flashing, colors, shapes, wavy lines, kaleidoscope, shimmering, expanding blind spot, etc.) are the most common aura. This is followed by numbness and tingling on 1 side (especially face and arm), and then dysphasia (trouble speaking; slurred speech, getting words out). There are also less common types of aura such as hemiplegic migraine aura (1-sided weakness), and brainstem aura (previously called “basilar migraine”; slurred speech, vertigo, tinnitus, double vision, hearing impairment, decreased level of consciousness, ataxia/imbalance). The aura phase should last between 5-60 minutes per ICHD3 criteria. Hemiplegic migraine can be associated with 1-sided weakness which can last up to 3 days. If the other types of aura last longer than 60 minutes, it is called prolonged or atypical aura, and usually warrants a brain CT or MRI, although it is not too uncommon to see.
3) The headache phase of a migraine is often the longest and most intense period of a migraine. Symptoms include intensive throbbing, nausea, giddiness, irritability, stiffness, and soreness. According to ICHD3 criteria, an untreated or unsuccessfully treated migraine attack should last 4-72 hours. A headache lasting longer than 72 hours (3 days) is called status migrainosus. It is not uncommon for a refractory migraine to last days and sometimes weeks for some patients.
4) The postdrome phase is the drawing down of a migraine attack. It can last for up to 48 hours and some of the lingering symptoms remain from the other phases of a migraine attack. Patients often report feeling wiped out, fatigued, and sore as if they were “hit by a bus”.
Statistics About Migraines and Their Prevalence
Migraine is one of the most common illnesses in the world. More specifically, it is ranked as the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world. It is estimated that migraine affects about 39 million Americans, and 1 billion worldwide. 1 in 4 households in the United States have an individual that suffers from migraine attacks, and 1 in 6 Americans has migraine. Migraines impact 18-20% of women (1 in 5) and 6% of men (1 in 16) in the United States and they are also fairly common in children. Only one out of three people actually talk to their doctors about their headaches.
Migraine can be very debilitating too. Migraine is now ranked as the 2nd leading cause of years lived with disability following low back pain! If you extract out women in their prime working years, migraine because the number one cause in that group.
Migraines are also a common cause for an emergency room visit. In fact, there are more than 1.2 million emergency room visits each year in the United States for someone who is suffering from an acute migraine attack. Patients with migraine have a greater than 1.5 fold increase in office visits, and a greater than 2 fold increase in ER visits and hospital admissions.
Migraines can also diminish the quality of life for the people who suffer from them. More than 4 million adults suffer from chronic migraine pain, which is an individual who is experiencing more than 15 days of migraine pain each month. Approximately 3% of patients will transform from episodic migraine to chronic migraine each year. Overall, it is estimated that 3-5% of patients in the United States have chronic migraine. Also, 20% of people who suffer from chronic migraines are disabled. Disability due to migraine peaks between the ages of 15-49 years old, which are peak employment years. Thus, migraine now accounts for the 2nd leading cause of years lived with disability following low back pain! Migraine also accounts for 50% of all neurologic disability. All of this puts a very high price tag on migraine, with an estimated 36 billion dollars spent in migraine costs in the United States each year.
Migraines in Children
Migraines are commonly undiagnosed in children. They are more commonplace in adolescent children, but 10% of school-age children suffer from migraines. Half of all migraine sufferers have their first migraine attack before they turn twelve and if a child has one parent who suffers from migraines, they have a 50% chance of developing migraines during their lifetime. Also, boys under the age of twelve tend to have migraines more often than girls, but that trend reverses in adolescence, typically with onset of menarche (which also highlights the hormonal influence on migraine).
What Causes Migraines?
There are a number of reasons that people suffer from migraines, but the true cause of them is not fully understood. Genetics and environmental factors play a role. In fact, around ⅔ of migraine cases run in families. Migraines also tend to happen in people who are prone to stress, bipolar disorder, and depression. There are also some common triggers for migraines, including:
- Drinks, such as alcohol and caffeinated beverages.
- Work stress or stress at home.
- Bright lights or strong smells.
- Drastic changes in one's sleep cycle.
- Bouts of overexertion.
- Changes in the weather or other barometric pressure changes
- Certain foods and food additives such as MSG, nitrates, aspartame, and other substances such as artificial sweeteners.
1) Vascular theory; “vascular headache” (outdated):
a) Lack of blood flow (ischemia) caused by vasoconstriction (narrowing) of the intracranial arteries (arteries inside the brain) caused migraine aura.
b) The vasoconstriction was then followed by rebound vasodilation (dilation) of the arteries. This dilation activated pain receptors on the arteries, and this was the cause of the pulsating headache.
c) This theory has since been disproven and outdated. Studies have also shown that the physical pulsations of the arteries did not correlate to the pulsating sensations of the headache pain.
2) Neurovascular theory (current):
a) Migraine is a neurogenic process with secondary changes in cerebral perfusion (related to neuronal dysfunction and hypometabolism during an attack). In other words, migraine is an electrical neurological event in the brain, not an event triggered by blood flow changes. This electrical event influences changes in brain metabolism such as hypometabolism and hypermetabolism. When the neurons are in a hypometabolism state, they have less oxygen and glucose requirement since they are not as active, and thus there is a lack of blood flow (not due to vasoconstriction of the brain arteries). This can be followed by hypermetabolism in which there is an increase in oxygen and glucose requirements and thus, increase in blood flow (so not necessarily simply rebound vasodilation).
b) Migraine aura is a good illustration of this phenomenon. Migraine aura is caused by an electrical wave spreading across the cortex of the brain moving at about 3 mm per minute (not by vasoconstriction as per the older vascular theory). At the front of this spreading electrical wave it causes hypermetabolism and an increase in blood flow. This hypermetabolism causes the “positive” migraine aura features (colors, flashing lights, kaleidoscope, shapes, zig-zags, tingling sensory changes, etc.). Following this electrical wave there is “neuronal depression” and hypometabolism, associated with a decrease in blood flow. This hypometabolism causes the “negative” migraine aura features (loss of vision, black spots, numbness, etc.). Depending on where this wave spreads, you may get different aura symptoms; visual aura as it spreads across the occipital (visual) cortex, sensory/numbness/tingling as it spreads across the parietal (sensory) cortex, dysphasia (trouble speaking, slurred speech) as it spreads across the frontotemporal (speech) cortex, one sided weakness in hemiplegic migraine as it spreads across the frontal (motor) cortex, brainstem symptoms such as vertigo, tinnitus, double vision, hearing loss, imbalance, decreased level of consciousness, slurred speech (previously called basilar migraine, now called migraine with brainstem aura) as it spreads across the brainstem.
c) The electrical event of migraine not only causes the changes in metabolism as described above, but the trigeminal nerves are also activated. Think of migraine as an electrical switch that gets turned on in the brainstem. It then turns on and activates the trigeminal nerves. The trigeminal nerves innervate all of the arteries in the brain and through the meninges surrounding the brain. When activated, the trigeminal nerves release a variety of inflammatory proteins (such as CGRP) and neuropeptides. The result of this is 3-fold:
-1st, these inflammatory peptides cause neurogenic inflammation around the brain. Think of it like a sterile (non-infectious) meningitis. So, when you’re having a migraine, exercise and activity, moving around, bouncing in a car, etc. often worsen the pain.
-2nd, it causes cerebral vasodilation in the brain and meninges. The dilation itself does not cause the pain, but rather it triggers the trigeminal nerves which innervate the arteries, and this sends signals back to the brain that something is going on, which in turn causes more release of inflammatory proteins and causes the migraine to worsen. This is the basis of why it is called the neurovascular theory of migraine.
-3rd, it enhances and exaggerates the transmission of pain from the trigeminal nerves, into the brainstem, and into the cortex of the brain where the pain is recognized.
At baseline, a patient with migraine who is not having a headache always has a state of neuronal hyperexcitability in the cerebral cortex, especially in the occipital cortex (which is why the majority of aura symptoms tend to be visual aura). So, they have a much lower threshold to a migraine being activated and triggered as compared to someone without migraine. In other words, the neurological system in a patient with migraine can be thought of as always being in a hyperactive, hypersensitive, overdrive state with the “volume turned way up” compared to a person without migraine. Thus, I tell my patients the goal of preventive treatment is to “turn the volume down” and increase the threshold of migraine being triggered so easily.
What Are Some Common Treatments for Migraines?
There are two categories of treatment for any type of headache, including migraines. Migraines can be treated through abortive or preventive means. Abortive treatment for any type of headache includes medications such as aspirin, which treats the headache while it's happening. Preventative treatments are intended to keep a headache or migraine from happening so frequently. Here are some of the different types of treatments for migraines.
Abortive Treatment for Migraines
The goal of migraine abortive treatments is to stop individual migraine attacks at onset so the migraine does not reach full severity, ends quickly, and your function is restored and maintained rather than having to go lay down and miss the whole day in bed. Over-the-counter pain relievers for migraines, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, are fairly commonplace. Some more aggressive abortive treatments include prescription medications like triptans (such as Maxalt) that block pain pathways within the brain. Some people may also receive anti-nausea drugs and opioid prescriptions to deal with more intense migraine symptoms. The migraine specific abortive/acute (as needed) treatments include triptans, gepants (Ubrelvy, Nurtec), ditans (Reyvow) or neuromodulatory devices.
Preventative Treatments for Migraines
Medications that lower blood pressure, antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, CGRP monoclonal antibodies, and even botox are some of the common preventative treatments for migraines. The classification of the preventive medicine typically has nothing to do with its purpose when it is used for migraine. For example, there are specific anti-blood pressure medicines that are good for migraine prevention. However, they do not work for migraine because of blood pressure changes, but rather they affect the electrical pathways of migraine. The same scenario goes for the antidepressant/anti-anxiety and anti-seizure categories. The medicines selected within each of these preventive categories are very specific and based on clinical trials and evidence. In other words, not all medicines within a specific medication class (such as all antidepressants) have evidence for migraine prevention, but rather very specific ones within that class. Medications that are designed to lower blood pressure can sometimes prevent migraines with aura and without aura. Certain types of antidepressants can help prevent migraines, but have some undesirable side effects in some individuals. Anti-seizure drugs, such as Topamax, can reduce the frequency of migraines in some individuals. The preventive migraine treatments should be used until the migraine and headache frequency is significantly improved consistently for several months. As mentioned above, this can be done with a variety of medications which may also include the CGRP monoclonal antibody (mAb) treatments (Aimovig, Ajovy, Emgality, Vyepti), gepants (Nurtec, Qulipta), Botox, natural supplements, herbals and vitamins, or neuromodulatory devices.
Alternative Treatments for Migraines
Some other types of treatment for migraines include acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, supplements, essential oils, yoga, meditation, and other techniques designed to enhance relaxation. For some individuals, exercise can decrease the frequency of migraines. In fact, some studies have shown that a routine exercise program can be just as effective as some of the prescription preventive medications used for migraine. Neuromodulatory devices that are FDA cleared for migraine prevention are also available and include sTMS (SAVI, SpringTMS, sTMS mini), eTNS (CEFALY), and nVNS (GAMMACORE), all of which are discussed in much greater detail here. There are also nutraceuticals and supplements which have good evidence for migraine prevention.
Finding Help For Migraines
Migraines remain a poorly understood medical condition, but there are treatments available. Only 4% of people suffering from migraines work with a headache specialist or a pain specialist. It is estimated that preventative treatment could benefit around 25% of people who suffer from severe migraines.
If you suspect that your headaches are migraines, you should see your doctor. Furthermore, any type of headache warrants at least one visit with your doctor to make sure there are no concerns by medical history or examination for any other worrisome causes of your headaches. They may refer you to a neurologist or other type of headache specialist. Oftentimes, a wide variety of tests may be given, including CT scans and MRIs, to see what is contributing to the cause of the migraine. The good news is that migraines can be successfully managed for the majority of patients, and that many people live with them thanks to the treatments that they receive.
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