Health

Dealing with migraines: Causes and treatment

May 17, 2022
6 minute read
Lucy Drennan

A migraine is a moderate or severe headache usually occurring on one side of the head. Migraines are a common condition usually beginning in early adulthood, and affect around 1 in every 5 women, and 1 in every 15 men.

There are several types of migraines:

- a migraine occurring with or without a warning signal, for example, seeing flashing lights

- a migraine alongside a headache

Migraines can often come with symptoms such as feeling sick, being sick, insensitivity to light or sound, and a throbbing sensation on one or both sides of the head that gets worse when you move. Occasionally, people may also experience sweats, poor concentration, abdominal pain, diarrhoea or feeling very hot or very cold.

Be aware - it is important to seek medical advice and treatment if you experience frequent (more than 5 days a month) or severe migraines.  

You should call 999 immediately if you, or someone you are with, experiences any of the following:

- paralysis or weakness in one or both arms, or one side of the face

- slurred speech

- a sudden agonising headache that is different from normal migraine headaches

- a headache alongside a fever, stiff neck, confusion, double vision, or a rash.

Causes and triggers

Although the exact cause is unknown, migraines are thought to be caused by temporary abnormal changes in the brain involving the blood and nerve vessels, and chemical signals. It is not clear why these changes occur. It is thought genetics may also play a role if you have someone in your close family who also experiences migraines.

Some people associate their migraine attacks with certain triggers such as:

This is not an exhaustive list and triggers are specific to each individual. It is recommended you keep a diary to help you identify any specific patterns for you.  

Treatment

Migraines cannot be cured but treatment is available to help reduce severity of symptoms and to enable better management of attacks. To find the most effective treatment for you, you may need to try different options or a combination of treatments.  

Painkillers:

Most people find over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen are the most effective and help to reduce their symptoms. It is best to take these painkillers at the first sign of a migraine coming on so that when the migraine is at its peak, the painkiller is also most effective at the same time, therefore easing your symptoms before it gets worse. You could use dissolvable painkillers in a glass of water, which are absorbed quicker than non-soluble painkillers, and therefore produce a more efficient response.

Always make sure you check the instructions on the painkiller you are taking and follow the dosage recommendation.

If you find over-the-counter medications don’t help ease your migraine, speak to your GP who may be able to prescribe you something stronger.

Triptans:

Triptans are a type of medication specific for migraine pain. These medications cause the blood vessels to contract and narrow, reversing the widening of blood vessels which is thought to be one of the causes of migraines. Triptans are available as tablets, injections or nasal sprays and would be prescribed by your GP or available over-the-counter via a pharmacist consultation. Some people may experience feeling sick, a dry mouth or drowsiness as a side effect although these symptoms are usually mild and improve in time.  

Your GP will review your treatment using triptans in a follow-up appointment to evaluate the effectiveness for you and to discuss your treatment options in the future.

Anti-sickness medications:

Anti-sickness medications, also known as anti-emetics, are used to help treat the symptoms of migraines such as feeling sick, being sick and nausea. These are usually tablets, prescribed by your GP and can be taken alongside over-the-counter painkillers and triptans. Anti-emetics can cause some side effects such as drowsiness and diarrhoea.

Lying down in a dark room can help you feel better when experiencing a migraine.

It is advised during a migraine attack, you lay down or sleep in a dark room to mitigate the sensitivity to light if you experience that. Some people find that eating something helps them feel better or once they have been sick they start to feel better.

Prevention

To reduce your chances of having a migraine headache, it can be helpful to identify and avoid what triggers them for you. For example, if eating a certain food or stress causes a migraine for you, do your best to try to avoid these.

If you are not sure which medication is best suited for you, or you would like some advice on treating migraines, speak to one of our friendly pharmacists who can advise you.

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