Migraine is an unprovoked headache which lasts 4 to 72 hours and is accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, visual or sensory disturbances, and tingling or numbness in the face and extremities.
The headache may be pulsatile or lateralized, the former of which refers to a throbbing sensation and the latter meaning that the pain occurs on one side of the head. When these symptoms become severe enough to interfere with daily tasks, this disorder can be debilitating and a challenge to live with. In fact, migraine is the 6th most disabling illness in the world with 90% of sufferers being unable to work or function normally during an episode.
Migraine often runs in families, which suggests that it has a genetic component, but studies show environmental factors may play an important role as well. Environmental triggers for migraine attacks include weather conditions, a change of seasons, bright lights, pollution and smells, travel and high altitude, dry and dusty surroundings, and overwhelming patterns.
Other common triggers are exercise, stress and anxiety, caffeine withdrawal, hormone changes, irregular sleep, alcohol consumption, skipping meals, and even certain foods. Some of the main diet culprits include chocolate, dairy, processed meats, foods with tyramine, onions, nuts and seeds, and citrus fruits. Despite these findings, the exact cause of migraine remains unknown.
The onset of migraine headaches usually occurs between the ages of 10 and 55 and is more common in women than men. In the United States, migraine affects nearly 30 million Americans and occurs in approximately 3 times as many females as males. While the reason for this gender divide is not entirely understood, research suggests that hormonal factors may be at play.
Furthermore, figures show that roughly 1 in 4 women will experience migraine headaches in their lifetime and half of these female sufferers will have more than one attack per month.
That said, migraine does often becomes less severe and less frequent with age as well as during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester.
Migraine is typically associated with adults, but this neurological disease affects children too. Half of all sufferers experience their first episode before the age of 12, and there have been reports of migraine in children as young as 18 months old. Interestingly enough, childhood migraine is more common in boys than girls, but this changes as adolescence approaches. It is estimated that 10% of school-age children live with migraine and according to statistics, these young sufferers are absent from school twice as often as non-sufferers. Fortunately, children generally experience fewer and shorter attacks than adults, but that’s not to say it’s any less disabling.
Although a migraine attack in and of itself is not life threatening, it may be a sign that something more serious is going on. For example, migraine headaches are often associated with an increased risk for heart disease and stroke, as well as a handful of physical and psychiatric conditions. These include but are not limited to insomnia, meningitis, irritable bowel syndrome, restless legs syndrome, and brain cancer.
For those with chronic daily migraine, defined as having 15 or more headache days per month, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances are especially common.