The pain is unmistakable. In addition to intense throbbing, migraines can bring on nausea/vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and numbness and tingling in the arms and legs. Symptoms can last a few hours or up to three days.
Although migraines tend to run in families, often start in childhood, and are twice as common in women than men after puberty, we still can’t pin them onto one specific gene. More than 30 genetic variations have been identified, leading us to believe that the culprit may be a combination of many genes and environmental factors. Brain imaging studies show that several regions may be involved in migraines, which might explain the range in symptoms.
There are therapies available to help fend off migraine attacks. The molecule calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) is released into the blood during migraines, making it a strong target for treatments, including drugs that block it. Studies also suggest that stimulating the vagus nerve with a handheld, noninvasive device placed on the neck can calm the brain cells that trigger migraine attacks.
Another prevention strategy is avoiding triggers like stress, lack of sleep, or certain foods. Foods that have been identified as common migraine triggers include those that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG) or artificial sweeteners. Changes in weather — especially high heat and humidity — and dehydration have also been linked to migraine attacks. In children, behavioral techniques that improve sleep hygiene and provide coping strategies for stress can help prevent migraines.
There are options that help during a migraine. Drugs that target the brain chemical serotonin, and particularly serotonin receptors found on blood vessels, have been shown to stop migraine attacks. Researchers believe these drugs may narrow blood vessels and block the release of CGRP.
Another exciting development is the Migraine Trainerä. Created by the NINDS/NIH, it’s a free smart phone app that empowers teenagers to take a greater role in their treatment. By regularly logging information about their migraines, teens can work with parents and healthcare providers to develop an individual migraine management plan. Key app features include action steps, exercises and techniques, and personalized daily goals that will help teens before, during, and after a migraine.
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