It’s Not Just a Headache: How a Migraine Changes Your Brain

If you suffer from migraines, you already know that they're one of the most painful types of headaches. In addition to the characteristic throbbing or stabbing pain, people with migraines often experience nausea, vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and difficulty communicating when a headache occurs.

You might not know, however, that permanent brain changes actually occur in individuals who experience chronic migraine headaches. Learn more about the symptoms of these changes, why they occur, and how to help your brain recover.  

 

Exploring the Causes of Migraine

Migraine headaches affect about 12 percent of Americans, according to MedlinePlus. This neurological condition is more common among people who have a family history of migraines. According to data reported by the American Academy of Family Physicians, your risk for migraine increases by 50% if one parent has migraines or by 75% if both parents have migraines, compared to an individual who has no family headache history.  

People who have certain other medical conditions, including epilepsy, sleep apnea, and other disorders, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, are also more likely to have migraine headaches. In addition, women are about three times more likely to have migraines than men are.

For most people with migraines, the headaches begin during the teen years and often decrease in their 30s.   Despite understanding some risk factors, doctors still don't know exactly what causes headaches categorized as migraines.

Many scientists associate these headaches with the fluctuation of the amounts of natural substances produced by the brain. When these levels increase, inflammation swells the blood vessels in the brain, causing pain when these vessels come in contact with nearby nerves.

Other researchers think migraine pain results from neurotransmitters released when the brain's serotonin levels drop at the beginning of this type of headache.   For some people who have migraines, taking over-the-counter pain medication too often can cause an intense rebound headache.

If you get a lot of headaches and find yourself taking pain medication more than ten days each month, talk with your doctor about developing a more effective treatment plan for your migraines.  

 

Navigating the Stages of a Migraine

For many people, the signs of a migraine headache start hours or days before pain develops. Common symptoms during this early phase of the headache, which is known as the prodrome phase, include depression, food cravings, fatigue, irritability, and stiffness in the neck.   After this phase, some people develop an aura, which signals the onset of headache pain.

The aura varies from person to person but may consist of vision changes, tingling or numbness in the extremities and face, and/or trouble speaking that lasts for about 20 to 60 minutes. The attack phase of the migraine, which begins along with or immediately after the aura, can last for hours or even days.

Migraine sufferers describe this phase as a throbbing, pulsing head pain, which often affects just one area. They may also feel dizzy, faint and nauseous, experience vomiting, or display ongoing sensitivity to light and sound.  

After a migraine headache, you may notice that you don't feel like yourself for a few hours. Symptoms of the so-called postdrome phase of a migraine typically include depression, mood changes, fatigue, stiffness in the neck area, and difficulty focusing, concentrating, and remembering.

Sometimes, a dull headache persists during this phase. However, these issues should be resolved within a few hours. Some people even experience euphoria as the attack phase of the migraine resolves.   Most migraines last about four hours when treated with prescription or over-the-counter pain medications.

Without treatment or when pain is resistant to treatment, the headache can last for up to 72 hours. During the headache, you can seek relief by lying down in a dark, quiet room. Place a cold rag over your eyes and massage your temples and scalp.  

 

Understanding the Biology of Brain Changes

Everything we learn and experience creates new connections and pathways in the brain. When you have chronic migraines, the brain begins to build networks that facilitate these painful sensations. Because your nervous system gets used to feeling pain, the brain treats pain as normal and makes it easier for your body to feel these sensations.  

These changes are most common among people who have been diagnosed with chronic migraines, defined as at least 15 headache days a month for three months or longer. When individuals who have chronic migraines do not seek treatment, they are more likely to develop other types of chronic pain such as arthritis, mental health issues such as depression, and associated health problems such as high blood pressure.

Fortunately, with an effective treatment plan for migraine headaches, you can help your brain break these pathways and unlearn chronic pain.  

 

Treating Chronic Migraine Pain

Headache experts recommend treatment that combines medications, exercise, proper nutrition, and avoidance of migraine triggers. Common exposures that trigger migraine headaches include:

  • Specific foods or beverages, especially items with alcohol, caffeine, and MSG
  • Changes in weather or temperature
  • Flickering or glaring lights
  • Fatigue or lack of sleep
  • Exposure to a certain sense
  • Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during the menstrual cycle
  • Stress and other emotional issues

  If you experience migraines, keep a diary indicating the possible triggers each time you have a headache. Record when you get a headache, where you are in your menstrual cycle, and the foods you ate and your activities over the past 24 hours.

Over time, you may notice a pattern that will help you avoid and/or prepare for headache-causing situations.   Your doctor may recommend a preventive medication that you will take each day to reduce the overall number of headache days you have each month. For women who find that their headaches occur before or during their periods, hormonal treatment such as contraceptive pills can effectively resolve chronic headaches.  

If you are overweight or obese, losing weight may help alleviate your migraine symptoms. Stress management is also effective for many migraine sufferers, including strategies such as biofeedback, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, breathing methods, and exercise. The FDA has also approved Botox injections and an electronic stimulation device to treat chronic migraine headaches.  

Mental health care is an important part of effective migraine treatment since chronic pain can result in anxiety and depression. Struggles with stress and emotional pain can also make headaches worse and more frequent. Talk to a therapist if you are experiencing ongoing feelings of dread, sadness, hopelessness, or fear associated with your headaches.

Counseling can help you feel more in control of your chronic pain, especially when used in conjunction with medications.   The American Migraine Foundation reports that although studies have detected brain lesions in individuals with chronic migraines, these findings do not indicate brain damage. In most cases, migraine headaches do not cause permanent brain damage, according to a study by the University of Copenhagen researchers.

However, the scientists note that people who have migraine headaches should seek immediate medical attention if headaches occur with vision changes or seizures, the headache pattern changes, or the headache is very different than their usual migraine.  

Sometimes, migraines mimic the symptoms of more serious medical conditions such as stroke. You should also see your health care provider if you develop new headache pain and you are older than age 50, you have a headache that worsens when you make sudden movements or cough, you have a headache after a head injury, you have a severe, abrupt headache, or you are experience weakness, double vision, fever, or confusion along with headache pain.  

For more about migraines and how they affect your brain, connect online with the National Headache Institute. Contact us today to learn about seeking relief for headache pain.  

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