As surprising as it might be, migraines still are not completely understood. We haven’t fully wrapped our minds around why and how migraines occur, and how best they might be treated or prevented. We do know more now than in the past, but even so, myths and misconceptions surrounding the migraine are plentiful and widespread. Inconsistencies are spread widely, especially through the Internet, and in some cases, even in the doctor’s office.
It’s not even a matter of not fully understanding the complex neurological origins of the migraine. It’s the simple stuff, like thinking of a migraine as a ‘really powerful headache’, or thinking that medication exists to eliminate migraines, or even not fully understanding that migraines last days, not hours, let alone minutes. Many don’t realize the full breadth of migraine symptoms, with issues such as photophobia, visual impairment, and even anxiety.
The migraine is deeply misunderstood, but that can be changed. Here are a few migraine myths you may not have known about, but really need to know about.
Myth 1: Migraines Are Just Headaches
A migraine is not just a headache, mostly because head pain is really just one of a large number of symptoms currently associated with a migraine. When a person is experiencing a migraine, they’re experiencing a full-scale breakdown of various neurological functions, starting with nausea, loss of balance, vomiting, sensitivity to light, sound, and even touch. If you have a migraine, you’re essentially looking at a prolonged period of general pain, wherein your senses are actively battling against you.
The migraine is still largely a puzzle. However, our understanding of it has grown throughout the years. In the past, it was believed that the various symptoms associated with the migraine were the effects of poor circulation, or variations in blood flow throughout the brain. Today, we understand that blood vessels are only part of the picture. Migraines start in the brain and are possibly caused by errors in communication between different groups of excitable brain cells. Hormones such as estrogen and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) such as serotonin have shown to play a role in the development and severity of a migraine, but we don’t quite fully understand how or why migraines occur. We do know that, for the most part, they are genetic.
The symptoms of a migraine are then caused by changes or fluctuations in certain brain chemicals, effectively triggering the rapid contractions of blood vessels in the brain that contribute to the throbbing one-sided pain often associated with a migraine.
Myth 2: Migraines Are Short-Lived
Migraines can span up to six days, with several stages. While a migraine is not always going to last a week, and not all stages are beset by pain, the process of a migraine is always much longer than just a few hours. A migraine begins with a prodrome stage, which occurs roughly a day or two before the onset of migraine pains. Symptoms associated with the prodrome stage are likely caused by fluctuations in hormones and neurotransmitters, with symptoms such as mood swings, cravings, increased thirst, and more.
The aura stage is named such due to a peculiar symptom that many people with migraines experience, wherein their vision is impaired by a distortion known as an “aura”. Auras are described sometimes as colorful or distracting zigzags and blurry objects. While aura migraines are fairly common, they are not universal, and the aura stage is not only characterized by blurry vision and flashing lights, but also by pins and needles in the extremities, problems in motor function, other issues related to speech and touch, and more.
Then, the attack itself begins. A migraine attack can last anywhere from a few hours to three days, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, severe pain, and photosensitivity.
Finally, post-drome stage kicks in, at which point the mind and body feel exhausted, moody, and still sensitive. This stage marks a slow return back to normal living, albeit with symptoms that potentially continue to impede an individual’s ability to return to doing normal day-to-day tasks.
Myth 3: Migraines Are Easy to Fight Through
A migraine is not something you ‘work through’. Migraines are often debilitating and chronic, and because their effects are felt for days, they can impose strict limitations on a person’s aspirations and dreams. More than just inconvenient, migraines are life-changing in a bad way.
That being said, there are medications to help treat migraine pain, but these medications are prophylactic rather than curative. Taking your meds can help prevent a migraine from getting worse, and in some cases, you can even find medication to help reduce the pain you’re in, but there is no drug that just stops a migraine in its tracks or cures its chronic nature.
Myth 4: Over-the-Counter Drugs Are Enough to Treat Migraines
Before migraine management is reduced to medication only, it’s important to note that migraine medication doesn’t always work, and worse yet, the more of it you take, the more likely you are to experience more pain. One of the most irritating aspects of a migraine is that, statistically, taking medication to quell the pain is more likely to cause the pain to worsen and become more frequent.
A common treatment for a migraine is to take an over-the-counter painkiller, supplemented with some caffeine, and a few hours spent in a cold, quiet, and dark room. However, that first step doesn’t always work.
Treatment options for migraines range from various non-opioid painkillers to triptans and ergots, which help constrict blood vessels in the brain and cut off pain signals. A new form of medication called erenumab-aooe has been approved by the FDA last year to help prevent migraine attacks by selectively blocking a molecule associated with migraines in the brain.
When nothing else works, it’s important to discuss your options with a doctor. Medication-overuse headaches can be treated, typically through abstinence and patience. It takes time for the symptoms to pass away, but in due time, a doctor may be able to start prescribing you some painkillers again. For severe medication-overuse headaches, gradual reduction of medication may be a better path to take.
Myth 5: Only Women Get Migraines
Men experience migraines too. About 18 percent of women experience migraines, compared to just 6 percent of men, but that represents a split of 1:3, rather than the belief that migraines are overwhelmingly felt by women. Often internalized, this belief has led many men to misidentify the symptoms of their head pain as tension headaches, rather than migraines. Migraines are not only an adult problem, either, with an estimated 10 percent of school-age children struggling with some type of migraine disorder.
A migraine attack can be debilitating, but the disorder can be managed. It is important to stress that help does exist, but it won’t always be the same help from patient to patient. Some people respond better to certain treatments than to others, and patience is necessary to find the best treatment path for your case.