It starts with an aura, and eventually you’re feeling excruciating, throbbing pain in your head. Light hurts. Sound hurts. Your vision is blurry or spotted and it feels like someone is driving an ice pick into your eye. The pain is nauseating. You just want to lie down in a dark, quiet place.
You’ve just experienced a migraine, and like millions of Americans who also experience migraines, the pain is all too familiar. Many living with migraines have questions about what’s next and how their condition could progress to something more serious. Stanford Rapp, DO, a ProMedica Physician specializing in neurology, says the first step is getting to know your body’s reaction to triggers.
“Some of the common migraine triggers include certain foods like aged cheeses and processed foods. Alcoholic drinks, especially red wine, are thought to increase migraine risk, as well as artificial sweeteners and caffeinated drinks such as coffee and soda,” says Dr. Rapp. While these foods sound random, he explains types of foods containing preservatives dilate blood vessels, which can lead to a migraine headache. Aged cheeses and alcoholic beverages have an amino acid called tyramine, which many in the medical community believe is a trigger.
Triggers aren’t just food-based. They also include factors such as:
- Bright lights, loud sounds, and certain smells like perfume
- Changes in sleep behavior
- Weather changes
- Increased physical activity
- Hormonal changes
“The best way to avoid migraine triggers is to keep a migraine diary,” says Dr. Rapp. “This will allow you to identify common activities that occur with each migraine.
Migraine diaries can help pinpoint possible triggers so they can be avoided.”
Loved ones might not know the best ways to help you through a migraine, but luckily, you are their best teacher.
“It is important to be open with your loved ones about how migraine headaches are impacting your life. By having more knowledge regarding your condition, they will be more supportive during your migraine attacks,” says Dr. Rapp. This means telling them if certain perfumes or soaps could trigger an episode, or if you have specific dietary needs. Be open and honest about your triggers so they can accommodate you as much as possible.
Migraine sufferers may also be concerned about their risk factors for brain lesions or stroke. New research points to a link between brain lesions, or damage to parts of the brain’s tissue, and migraine headaches. Dr. Rapp explains brain lesions can occur with migraine headaches, especially those who experience aura. While these lesions are a reality for many, there is no evidence to suggest these lesions affect cognition, or the brain’s ability to understand, learn and process information. The best way to identify lesions is with an MRI scan, which a doctor can order based on each patient’s severity of symptoms.
“The best way to minimize these lesions is to seek treatment for your migraines so their frequency can be reduced. Also, addressing other risk factors for brain lesions, including control of your blood pressure, as well as your cholesterol and blood sugar levels, will help. Patients should also stop smoking,” he says.
While the risk is low, there is also a correlation between migraine and stroke. Your risk for stroke is controlled by factors such as age, race, gender and family history, as well as more preventable conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. The risk increases in migraine with aura and with patients who use oral contraceptives, explains Dr. Rapp.
You can lower your risks for stroke by practicing good health. Eating healthy foods, exercising regularly and keeping conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes in check are all excellent ways to reduce your risks for stroke, but they’re also good for your overall health and well-being.