What is a migraine? Why migraine happens. Who gets migraines? Treating migraines.

Migraine Headaches

All Too Common

If your head aches so often you've stopped enjoying things and you find yourself taking off more and more sick days, you may be having migraines, the most common of all neurological disorders. An estimated 28,000,000 Americans are afflicted with migraine headaches, and many more remain undiagnosed. In fact, medical researchers believe that half of all migraine sufferers go undiagnosed.

Tension Headache or Migraine?

So, your head aches, too. How do you know whether your headache is a plain old, garden variety tension or sinus headache, as opposed to a true migraine? Migraines hit more often, with headaches occurring more than 3 times a week and symptoms so disabling that a sufferer may miss out on work or special events more than 3 times a month. 75-80% of recurrent headaches are migraine as opposed to tension or sinus headaches. Women get migraines more often than men; 17% of them report migraines as opposed to only 6% of American males.

Migraines are chronic headaches caused by the vascular system and result when there is an enlargement of the blood vessels (vasodilatation) and a resultant release of chemicals from the nerve fibers that are wrapped around the blood vessels. The temporal artery, the artery on the outside surface of the skull, just beneath the skin of the temple, enlarges during a migraine attack. This enlargement of the temporal artery causes the nerve fibers coiled around the blood vessels to stretch. The nerves respond by releasing chemicals that cause inflammation and pain, as well as a further enlargement of the artery. As the artery continues to enlarge, more chemicals are released, and the pain is magnified.

A typical migraine attacks the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for our most primitive reaction to stress and pain, or the fight or flight response. Increased sympathetic nervous activity in the intestines is common with migraine, bringing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There may also be a delay in the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine. This delay can impair the ability to absorb oral medications which can, in turn, lead to the known phenomenon in which oral migraine medications are rendered ineffective against a migraine attack.

The increase in sympathetic activity may also decrease blood circulation, leading to a pale complexion along with cold hands and feet. Sometimes, increased sympathetic activity causes sensitivity to light and sound, as well as blurred vision.