By Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist
February 15, 2018
Migraines are characterized by recurrent pounding, throbbing pain, occurring on one side of the head. At times, it alternates. At its highest intensity, it is rated a 10/10 on the pain scale. It is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises. It may or may not be accompanied by visual symptoms which can range from seeing bright lights to seeing sophisticated patterns of color called fortifications that often migrate across your visual fields. The frequency may vary from infrequent to a daily basis. Some patients may have other neurological symptoms that accompany it, however, migraine is a diagnosis of exclusion. In other words, other more serious causes are ruled out before a diagnosis of migraine can be concluded if you also experience other neurological symptoms. It is important to be fully evaluated by a neurologist to exclude other possible neurological etiologies.
Lifestyle changes that help reduce migraine frequency
There are non-pharmacologic measures which may reduce the frequency of migraines. Oftentimes, triggers can be found. Lifestyle changes are the hardest to do but they greatly minimize the frequency of migraines.
Avoidance of caffeine
If large amounts of coffee are consumed, tapering can help ease into complete cessation. A sudden cessation may result in withdrawal effects of caffeine which can involve headaches. Common sources of caffeine include coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate. Avoidance of beverages labeled as decaffeinated as there is still a small amount of caffeine is also beneficial.
There is a lot of myth and misinformation. Many migraineurs say that caffeine alleviates their headaches. Caffeine can help a migraine in the short-term, however, it prolongs a migraine cycle. Refer to a neurologist for questions.
Obtain adequate sleep
Adequate rest at night is important. This may vary from 6-8 hours. A rule of thumb is if one cannot drag themselves out of bed sleep is inadequate. Adequate sleep means waking up refreshed. Sleep requirements vary per individual. Sleep deprivation propagates the migraine cycle. Sleep must be continuous and nocturnal allowing the body to enter the restorative deep wave sleep at stages 3 and 4 of sleep. Even if prolonged sleep occurs if constantly interrupted one will not wake up refreshed since the natural sleep cycle is disrupted and only light sleep stages 1 and 2 will occur. It should be nocturnal, the body is designed to sleep at night when hormones are secreted, daytime sleep will not have the same quality.
Avoidance of food triggers
A food journal provides much useful information. Common culprits include wine, cheese, hot dogs, and fish. Certain red meat may trigger migraine. Food triggers vary per patient and are unique to each individual.
Avoidance of excessive use of over the counter medications
Over the counter medications are easily accessible and consumable. A common pitfall is to overuse these medications. When stopped abruptly, rebound headache may result. It is not infrequent for patients with migraine headaches to have rebound headaches compounding the condition.
Magnesium is known to help with migraine. Intravenous magnesium is often used in the hospital setting in status migrainosus which is a continuous extremely painful migraine which sometimes lasts up to weeks. Magnesium is a mineral found naturally in food. Oral magnesium oxide at specific doses is helpful in preventing the migraine cycle.
Riboflavin is found naturally in the diet. It can prevent the migraine cycle at specific doses.
Other lifestyle changes
Other lifestyle changes include keeping hydrated especially during hot weather, eating 3 meals a day and avoiding hunger. Some triggers are unique to individuals. Avoiding stress helps with migraines. A zen-like environment is optimal.
Medications are often prescribed for the management of frequent migraine headaches. They are divided into 2 classes, preventative and abortive agents. However, even the best medications will not work effectively if triggers or aggravating factors are still present as mentioned above in daily life.