Brain & Neuro Health

Migraine: A Head-thumping Monster Headache


If you’ve ever had a migraine you know it’s the Godzilla of all headaches. It often begins with pulsating lights before triggering a vice-like, throbbing head pain that makes its victims want to run screaming into the night. Instead, they curl up in a dark room with an ice pack pressed to the forehead.

Migraines impact people in different ways, but victims will tell you that it’s severe and temporarily debilitating. It’s also very common. Migraines affect 39 million people in the U.S.; of them, 28 million sufferers are women. Before age 10, an equal number of boys and girls get migraines. But during and after puberty, migraines affect girls twice as often as boys. Infant colic has been linked with childhood migraines. Researchers now think colic might be an early form of the disease.

Here are more interesting stats:

  • Left untreated, a migraine can last from 4 hours to 3 days.
  • 4 million people have chronic migraines with a minimum of 15 headaches a month.
  • 90% of migraine sufferers can’t work or function during an attack.

Migraines can be expensive. Every 10 seconds, someone in the U.S. goes to the emergency room complaining of head pain; about 1.2 million ER visits are for acute migraine attacks. ER visits typically have a much higher copay than treatment at an urgent care center, for example. The cost is reflected in insurance claims that impact the employer’s bottom line and the employee’s out-of-pocket expense.

A migraine isn’t just a bad headache. It’s a neurological disease that can involve other parts of the body. An attack often starts with flashing lights, which is called an aura. This visual disturbance is a result of a particular nerve that releases neurochemicals and causes blood vessels to swell and become inflamed. A cranium-squeezing headache soon follows.

An episode can also include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and extreme sensitivity to sound and light. It’s not unusual to want to hide in bed under the covers until the attack passes.

Medical experts once thought migraine headaches were an episodic condition with flare-ups. But today it’s considered a chronic condition with periodic attacks, similar to what happens with asthma. Migraines are triggered by food, stress or something else. Whatever the cause, this kind of headache is a real pain.

Source: World Health Organization; New England Journal of Medicine; American Migraine Foundation; webmd.com; kidshealth.org

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