Headache or migraine?

Headaches are a common phenomenon of life. But how can you be sure that your exceedingly painful headache is not actually a migraine, and what can you do if you are a migraine sufferer? A migraine is a neurological phenomenon and, like epilepsy, is categorized as a neurological disease, which involves the brain, spinal cord and nerves, according to the National Library of Medicine.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, over 10 percent of the population, including children, experiences migraines.

“I get migraines pretty often,” says Santa Monica College student Rosie Reyes. “Sometimes I’ll wake up with one in the morning, and it’ll last all day until I go to bed. If I hear someone shutting a door, the sound makes the side of my head feel like someone’s putting a ton of pressure on it.”

“Migraines are caused by irritability of electrical activity in the brain that leads, in most patients, to an increase in blood flow to part of the brain, which causes a pounding-type feeling,” says neurologist William G. Buxton, medical director at the Neurodiagnostics Lab of the UCLA-Santa Monica Neurological Associates.

Doctors often advise patients that if they feel like lying down in a quiet, dark room during a severe headache, they might be experiencing a migraine.

Tension headaches, not considered to be migraines, usually affect the head or neck, creating tension and sensitivity to either light or sound, but not both, according to Buxton.

“My headaches aren’t too severe,” says SMC student Melanie Jimenez. “I’ll get them when I’ve been studying a lot, and I usually have to just stop what I’m doing and walk outside and get some air.”

During a tension headache, a person might experience mild-to-moderate pain, with a steady ache on both sides of the head that is distracting but not debilitating, according to a website by the Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

However, during a migraine, moderate-to-intense debilitating symptoms frequently occur, such as intense pounding or throbbing localized on one side of the head, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.

“[Each person’s] brain is chemically and genetically different,” says Buxton. “Migraines are triggered by a combination of genes that predispose people to migraines and adjust their body chemistry.”

“Migraines can also have health risks with certain susceptible people,” says neurologist Verna R. Porter, chief of the Division of Neurology of the UCLA-Santa Monica Neurological Associates. “Certain parts of the population, particularly pregnant women and women taking birth control, can have a potential risk increase of vascular disease. Others also include anyone with a history of vascular disease, prior strokes, and people with auto-immune conditions.”

According to Buxton, if an individual experienced certain warning signs as a child, they may be more prone to migraines as an adult.

“A lot of times, patients who have had migraines had frequent vomiting spells as children, even when they weren’t particularly nauseated,” says Buxton. “Motion sickness is also common in patients who often experienced it as a child, and began having migraines later in life as adults.”

Buxton describes the exact causes of migraines or headaches as chemical, and Porter explains that that they are triggered in the brain by a specific process.

“Migraine is its own physiological entity,” says Porter. “It tends to be triggered at a brain stem level by abnormalities in the trigeminal nerve, altering levels of chemicals such as serotonin, an activating chemical in the brain.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, other migraine triggers include hormonal changes in foods, stress, sensory stimuli, changes in wake-sleep patterns, physical factors, changes in the environment, medications, and hormonal changes in women.

Despite recent developments in medicine, there is no magical procedure to treat this debilitating and painful neurological disease.

However, preventative and abortive medications are two options for migraine sufferers to consider.

Preventative medication is taken on a daily basis in order to get control of migraine intensity, severity and frequency.

“Preventative medication is long-term therapy, and can be used by people for weeks, months, sometimes longer,” says Porter. “Some people are on preventative [medication] indefinitely.”

Abortive medication is used at the time of the pain to lessen the feeling. These medications include triptan-based medications such as Imitrex and Maxalt, and anti-inflammatory medications like Naproxen and Advil.

Triptans, which address the process of events that lead to migraines, are aimed to help rebalance the deficient serotonin levels that can lead to the physical pain of migraines.

However, if abortive medications are used too frequently, immunity can result, which can ultimately lead to more headaches as the body gets used to the medicine.

“There is something called medication overuse headache,” says Buxton. “If a person takes the medication to relieve their headaches more than once a week, they are at risk for getting more headaches because the brain becomes accustomed to the medication and headaches trigger more easily.”

Consistent use of medications containing caffeine, such as Excederin Migraine, is known to promote medication overuse headache.

Porter and Buxton both recommend that college students eat and sleep as consistently as they can, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, take a nap during the day instead of sleeping in, have small frequent meals, exercise, and minimize caffeine consumption.