Causes of Migraines
At this point researchers and physicians do not have a definitive cause of typical migraine headaches. Thus far they have been able to identify some genetic and environmental factors that seem to play a role.
There is a theory that migraine headaches can be caused by changes in the trigeminal nerve, and balances in brain chemicals including serotonin or an imbalance of other minerals, such as magnesium.
Although the exact mechanism of how the headache is caused may not be known, doctors do know that there are a number of different triggers, or factors in the environment which can cause a migraine headache to occur.
While these triggers may cause a migraine in someone who is prone to migraines they do not cause a migraine in people who are not prone to migraines.
Fluctuations in estrogen levels seemed to trigger headaches in many women who have known migraine history. Women often report migraine headaches immediately before or during their periods when there is a major drop in the amount of estrogen available to the body.
Other women have an increase in the number of migraines during pregnancy or menopause, again hormonally related.
Both men and women find that some foods seem to trigger a migraine headache, including alcohol (especially beer and red wine), aged cheeses, chocolate, aspartame and caffeine. And, while some foods trigger a migraine headache, other people find that skipping meals or fasting will also trigger a migraine headache.
Other triggers include stress, increased sensory stimuli such as bright lights, sun glare and loud noises. Other people find unusual smells, including pleasant scents such as perfume, can also trigger a migraine headache.
Interestingly, while it may make sense that individuals who do not get enough sleep can have a migraine attack triggered others find that getting too much sleep can also trigger a migraine headache.
Changes in the weather or barometric pressure can trigger a migraine for some individuals as well as certain medications which can aggravate the condition. Sometimes physical exertion, including sexual activity, can instigate a migraine headache.
After results of the improvement in imaging technology scientists are now able to view the brain during a migraine headache. This has resulted in an interesting discovery. During a regular headache the vasculature of the brain often constricts, or the blood vessels get smaller.
But during a migraine headache the vasculature gets larger or dilated. This causes the release of chemicals that cause inflammation, pain and further enlargement of the artery.
The migraine headache also causes the sympathetic nervous system to respond with feelings of nausea, diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. It delays the emptying of the small intestines which affects food absorption, decreases the blood circulation which leads the cold hands and feet and increases the sensitivity to light and sound.
Recent research has found that individuals who suffer from migraine headaches have a greater risk of having a magnesium deficiency in their body. When that magnesium deficiency is corrected many of these individuals go on to lead more normal lives with a significantly reduced number of migraine headaches.
Magnesium is responsible for hundreds of different functions in the body so a deficiency can lead to a wide range of seemingly unrelated conditions appearing to cause anxiety, depression, migraines, heart palpitations, temporomandibular joint syndrome, muscle cramps, noise sensitivity and chemical sensitivity.
91% of all migraine sufferers report this functional impairment with their headaches which means that these headaches cause an inability for them to complete their daily living tasks. 51% of sufferers report that school or work productivity was reduced by at least 50%.
While the exact causative factor for migraine headaches has not yet been identified researchers are able to help individuals identify triggers which increase the risk of developing a migraine headache as well as treatment protocols which help to decrease the pain and discomfort or abort the migraine altogether. There are also current medications which help to prevent the development of a new migraine headache as well as nutritional and exercise recommendations which help both the treatment and the prevention.
Migraine sufferers no longer have to lie in a dark room for days on end hoping for their headaches to go away. With a bit of persistence and management, as well as advice from a neurologist or primary care physician well-versed in the treatment of migraine headaches, many individuals are able to continue to lead normal and productive lives.
Migraine Research Foundation
Time: New Clues on What Causes Migraines
Women’s Health.gov: Migraine Fact Sheet
American Migraine Foundation: About Migraines