Migraine Awareness Week – so much more than ‘just a headache’

migraines

This week is Migraine Awareness Week and UK charities The Migraine Trust and Migraine Action are on a mission to change common perception about migraine because, for around nine million people in the UK, the condition is far more than ‘just a headache’.

According to The Migraine Trust, migraine – an often lifelong, little understood condition for which there is no cure – is the most common neurological condition in the UK, affecting 1 in 7 adults and 1 in 10 children. Migraine charities are concerned that there are too many people suffering unnecessarily when there are effective treatments available, but also by a common lack of understanding from non-migraine sufferers.

Headache hyperbole

We all know a few people who, whilst at work sipping tea and cracking jokes, will cheerfully exclaim that they are battling the flu – when in actuality, the likelihood is they have a mild cold, since seasonal influenza usually means spending between three and five days in a semi-delirious state in bed, unable to string together a coherent sentence.

So too with migraine versus a headache, some people who suffer from regular headaches while working or carrying on everyday activities – perhaps related to a drop in blood sugar, tension, caffeine withdrawal or dehydration – may believe they are suffering with migraine, and may not understand how some people who have severe migraines just can’t get on with things as they do.

migraine sufferers

So what is a migraine?

According to sufferers, migraine typically involves a moderate to severe and intense, throbbing pain in the head and, sometimes, the face and neck. While there are different kinds of migraine, and people experience varying symptoms, some sufferers report a sharp pain which begins behind the bridge of the nose in the sinus area which then spreads deeper into the head. Less commonly, some sufferers do not experience head pain per se, but instead experience many of the accompanying symptoms of migraine, including nausea, aura and visual disturbances.

migraine aura

Migraine and aura

Some migraine sufferers experience what is known as aura – visual and neurological disturbances such as flashing lights, shifting vision, blind spots, feeling dizzy and numbness or tingling in the fingers, arm and face, which can also provide useful advance warning that a migraine is about to begin. Sometimes sufferers can prevent a full-blown attack if they take appropriate medication as soon as they begin experiencing aura, but often an attack is inevitable.

Markedly different to a normal ‘headache’, migraines can be seriously debilitating and sufferers frequently report dramatically increased sensitivity to all light and sound, nausea and vomiting, an inability to think clearly, sweating and pale, clammy skin. Understandably then, unlike a normal headache, continuing normal activities during a full-blown migraine attack is impossible, and for frequent sufferers, migraine can interfere with everyday work, school and leisure activities. The worry that a migraine may strike at any time due to triggers outside your control may lead to sufferers feeling excluded socially and some may become anxious and even reclusive.

Added to these issues is the problem of a lack of understanding from non-migraine sufferers, who may feel that a couple of pills and a positive attitude will solve the problem like it does for a regular headache, but when it comes to a fully-fledged migraine attack – paracetamol and a smile just won’t cut it.

suffering migraine

Most sufferers find that resting or sleeping in a quiet, darkened room provides the best chance of finding relief until the migraine passes – often within hours, but some suffer migraine attacks for days at a time, which can obviously impact hugely on quality of life. It is common to feel fragile, weak and drained once an attack is over.

Migraine treatment

A migraine attack can begin suddenly without warning, while others may start with some recognised ‘warning signs’ including sensory disturbances – such as a metallic taste in the mouth or an enhanced sense of smell – food cravings, a pale complexion and a general feeling of malaise. With time, many sufferers learn to recognise these pre-migraine signs, and take preventative medication to stop the attack in its tracks however, some sufferers’ report that with regular use, over the counter medications can prove less effective or even ineffective. If this is the case for you, see your GP to discuss prescription medication options – there are lots available.

migraine triggers

Common migraine triggers

According to The Migraine Trust, common triggers for migraine include:

  • Stress
  • A change in daily routine
  • A change in sleeping patterns
  • Strong sunlight
  • Dehydration
  • Missed meals
  • Food triggers frequently include mature cheeses, red wine, dark-skinned fruits and chocolate
  • Strong smells, including perfumes, air fresheners, BBQ and woodsmoke, petrol and household cleaning products
  • For some particularly sensitive people, a change in atmospheric weather conditions can also trigger a migraine attack.

Migraine and hormones

The onset of puberty and hormonal changes often accompany a first migraine in both sexes but for women, monthly hormonal cycles are also strongly associated with migraine. Some will experience migraine for the first time during puberty and at certain points during their menstrual cycle. While migraines may continue to be troublesome during the menopausal years, some women report that migraine frequency diminishes after the menopause.

When to seek urgent help

The NHS warns that severe migraine can sometimes be confused with the symptoms of other more serious conditions, such as stroke or meningitis. If you or someone else develops the following symptoms, call 999 for an ambulance.

  • Paralysis or weakness in one or both arms – characterised by an inability to lift the arms above the head and keep them there
  • Slurred speech
  • A sudden and agonising headache more painful than anything previously experienced
  • High temperature
  • Neck stiffness, inability to place the chin on the chest
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Double vision or vision loss
  • A rash.

More information

For more information on migraine, including diagnosis, living with the condition, identifying triggers and the various treatments available, visit The Migraine Trust.

Or contact Migraine Action on 08456 011 033, open weekdays 10am to 4pm.


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About the author

Georgie Fenn, writes most of our news articles and social media posts.