Migraine affects nearly 40 million Americans and over 1 billion people around the world. And, contrary to popular belief, it's ranked among the most debilitating diseases out there. Aka it’s a much bigger deal than you may have heard. Don't worry. We did some digging.
Back to basics. Migraine is…
More than a headache. Migraine is a complex neurological disease with attacks that come and go.
Hard to ignore. During an attack, it can be hard to do normal, everyday things. Like read the news, cook, talk on the phone...you get it.
Made up of four distinct phases (though you might not experience each):
Prodrome. Or pre-headache where you might feel irritable, tired, foggy or sore.
Aura. An estimated one-third of people with migraine struggle to speak, hear, and/or see before the next part hits.
The attack itself. Which can last between four and 72 hours.
Postdrome. Aka a migraine hangover that can leave you feeling wiped out for days.
Attacks can feel like…
Intense throbbing or pulsing. Often on one side of the head behind an ear or eye.
An upset stomach. Nausea is one of the most common symptoms. You might also throw up.
Sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Even turning on a lamp can be painful.
Sensory disturbances. Remember that aura thing we talked about earlier? It can mean seeing light flashes, random shapes or blind spots, hearing a ringing in your ears, getting tingly, feeling dizzy, slurring your speech, mumbling or having trouble finding the right words. Serious stuff. People with “silent migraine” get aura symptoms sans headache.
And they can lead to…
Isolation. And not just because you need quiet time to recover. It can be lonely when friends and family don’t get how serious your disease is. Since the symptoms aren’t always visible, the stigma around migraine is real.
Mental health struggles. Including anxiety about not being understood and fear that future attacks will interrupt major life moments (like a big work presentation or wedding). People with migraine are also about five times more likely to develop depression.
Sleep disorders. People with migraine are up to eight times more likely to have serious sleep issues like insomnia.
Attacks can be triggered by…
Stress. Especially the chronic kind. We know it’s not easy (especially if you’re stressed about when the next attack will occur), but finding things that help you keep calm and carry on can help.
Hormones. A recent National Headache Foundation survey, sponsored by Biohaven, found nearly half of women with migraine disease say hormonal changes related to their period, menopause, or childbirth triggered or made an attack worse.
The weather. Shifts in barometric (read: atmospheric) pressure on rainy or humid days impact some people more than others. But bright, sunny days and extreme heat or cold can bring on attacks too.
Caffeine and alcohol. Doctors are still trying to figure out the connections, but studies suggest they’re def there.
Lack of sleep. That’s right. Migraine can make it hard to get enough Zzz. But sleepless nights can also trigger an attack. Helloooo, vicious cycle.
Factors to consider…
Migraine is three times more common in women than in men. And research shows it hits women in their 30s especially hard.
Genetics matter. If one or both of your parents have migraine disease, there’s a 50%–75% chance you will too.
Similar symptoms could also mean...
Another kind of headache. Not-so-fun fact: There are over 150 types. Tension headaches and sinus headaches are big ones. The former is recurrent and can last for hours, like a migraine attack. But usually don’t come with throbbing, visual changes or stomach issues. The latter tends to cause throbbing or pressure behind your eyes, cheeks, and forehead. And usually start riiiight after you get over a cold or other viral infection.
If you think you have migraine disease, you should...
Talk to your primary care doctor, a neurologist or a headache specialist. They'll ask about your medical history and symptoms. And probably take a close look at your eyes and sinuses. They might suggest an MRI or CT scan to rule out other issues. Prepare a headache diary ahead of time if you can — it can help them identify patterns.
Address potential triggers. A migraine attack is never your fault and some triggers cannot be avoided. But you can make small lifestyle changes to decrease how often attacks hit and how severe they are. Pro tip: Following a regular exercise routine, talking to a therapist, and intentional breathing exercises can help you manage stress. Getting at least seven hours of shut-eye every night won’t hurt. And paying attention to how caffeine, alcohol, and certain foods affect you can help you decide what might be worth cutting back on.
Consider treatment. A doctor might suggest different approaches. Like acute treatments, which you’d take at the first symptom of an attack. And preventive treatments, which can help lessen the frequency of attacks. If you’re looking for a two-in-one deal, talk to your doctor about Nurtec® ODT (rimegepant). It’s the first and only medication that treats migraine symptoms and prevents attacks before they start.† Some docs may also recommend nonpharmacologic approaches to prevent attacks, like meditation and acupuncture.
Let your friends, family, and co-workers know. Describe what you’re going through to help them understand. Be clear and honest about your needs. And explain that you’re not being flaky or dramatic when you have to bail on plans.
Advocate for yourself. Don’t let anyone in your life minimize your symptoms as “just” a headache.
Migraine is a common disease — especially among women. But many people still downplay how serious it is. If the attack symptoms sound familiar, describe your experience to your doctor. And some other people in your life, too. Being open, honest, and tuned in to your mind and body can help you take control.
theSkimm consulted with neurologist Dr. Huma Sheikh for this guide.
Subscribe to Skimm Well
Sign up here to receive our wellness newsletter filled with actionable advice, expert-vetted content, product recs, and more — delivered directly to your inbox.