Migraines: They’re more than just bad headaches

The 36 million people in the U.S. (about 12 percent of the population) who suffer from migraines know they are more than just a bad headache. That’s one of the most common misconceptions about migraines. The second most common misconception is that they aren’t as bad the person who is having them says they are.

“Migraines are definitely more than just a headache. Sometimes the symptoms are downplayed by people who have never experienced them, but they are extremely debilitating and can often come on without warning which significantly interferes with the daily lives of the people who suffer from them,” said George Nissan, DO, an adult headache medicine specialist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health and the Baylor Comprehensive Headache Center.

For starters, migraines often run in families and are more common in women than men.

“There is a large genetic component to migraines,” said Dr. Nissan. “We can often identify a first degree relative in many cases that suffers from them as well. For example, a mother and her daughter may both experience migraines.”

Secondly, migraines don’t necessarily go away and they can’t be “cured.”

However, with the right treatment plan from a physician who specializes in migraines, they can be effectively managed.

For example, a person who suffers from regular migraines can learn what their triggers are. The common culprits are often certain foods such as aged cheeses, smoked meats, red wine, MSG and anything with aspartame in it.

Also, certain fragrances may be a trigger because people who experience migraines are often very sensitive to smells. Bright lights and physical exertion can also trigger the onset of a migraine.

“We all know someone who experiences migraines so most of us are familiar with the common remedies people use to help manage the symptoms. Many people prefer to lie down in a quiet dark room to help reduce the intensity of the symptoms while some people prefer to rely on medication,” explained Dr. Nissan.

“But in almost all cases, medication is needed at some point, even if it’s over-the-counter.”

Dr. Nissan says it’s important to note that medication can be overused and can sometimes trigger what’s known as a rebound headache.

“Rebound headaches occur when someone has taken medication — typically over-the-counter pain relievers — very frequently. These medications are designed to relieve the pain of occasional headaches and are not intended for use several times a week for long periods of time. Your body may adapt to the medication and the headache may come back,” said Dr. Nissan.

Finally, Dr. Nissan says the majority of the patients he treats at the Baylor Comprehensive Headache Center experience episodic migraines, meaning they are not regular and may only occur a few times a year.

However, there are some people who suffer from severe migraines, sometimes daily.

“There is a large spectrum when it comes to migraines. I would say at least 80 percent of the patients I treat in my practice are seeking medical care for migraines, but there is a small percentage of this population that experience extremely severe migraines,” adds Dr. Nissan.

“There are several treatment options available to them and we work with each individual case to determine the proper course of treatment. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

If you or a loved one experiences migraines, you can register for the Baylor Comprehensive Headache Center’s free migraine seminar featuring Dr. Nissan by clicking here.

To test your knowledge of migraines, take this interactive quiz. You may be surprised what you learn.

To see what a migraine actually is and how it develops in the brain, watch this video.

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Migraines: They’re more than just bad headaches