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Getting to the bottom of migraine pain


You’ve been having more than your share of headaches lately. And they’ve been bad—often sending you to bed for the day. You don’t think you’ve had migraines before, but is it possible you’re getting them now?

Whether they last for a few hours or days, migraines can be a huge disruption to your life. So if you think you might be having them, it’s worth talking with your doctor.

Your doctor can diagnose migraines based on your medical history, symptoms and possibly a test or two. And there are steps you can take to feel better.

To start with, here are three questions your doctor is likely to ask you.

What kind of pain is it?

A migraine is usually an intense, pounding headache. It may start out as a dull ache, but then it often develops into a constant throbbing, pulsating pain around the temples. It may also encompass the front, back or both sides of the head. And migraine pain often spreads to the eyes.

Migraines can occur as little as a few times a year. Or they can occur daily. And they’re more common in women than in men.

Do you have other migraine symptoms?

Besides a headache, other common symptoms of migraines include:

  • Pain made worse by physical activity.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Blurred vision or blind spots.
  • Being bothered by light, noise or smells.
  • Fatigue and confusion.
  • Stuffy nose.
  • Stiff or tender neck.
  • Tender scalp.

Some migraines—called classic migraines—are preceded by a warning sign called an aura. Auras are visual disturbances and may include flashing lights and wavy or jagged lines. But these are less common.

What triggers your headaches?

Migraines are often brought on by environmental, hormonal or other factors. What sets off a migraine in one person may not do so in another. But here are some common triggers:

What you eat. Many foods and beverages may trigger migraines, from aged cheeses to alcohol to soy sauce. Skipping meals or becoming dehydrated can also bring on migraines.

Your hormones. Women may get migraines based on their menstrual cycles, menopause or use of birth control pills.

Your stress levels. Stress or anxiety can trigger migraines in some people.

Your senses. Loud sounds, bright lights—including flashing lights or sunlight—or strong smells (like paint fumes or perfume) can bring on a migraine.

Medicines. Your doctor can tell you if any medicines you’re taking put you at risk for migraines.

Keeping a headache diary can help you and your doctor identify your triggers. Write down when you get a migraine and what you were doing—or eating—just before.

Finding relief: Migraine treatments

When you get a migraine, simple self-care steps may provide some relief. You might try:

  • Resting in dark, quiet room.
  • Drinking plenty of water.
  • Placing a cool cloth on your head.

For mild migraines, your doctor might suggest over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or an aspirin-caffeine combination. Some prescription medicines can also help stop a migraine if needed.

And you might be able to take steps to help reduce the number of migraines you get. For example:

  • Don’t skip meals.
  • Stick to a regular sleep-and-wake schedule.
  • Be active. Aerobic exercise can help lessen tension as well as help you maintain your weight. (Obesity may contribute to migraines.)
  • Avoid triggers that seem to bring on a headache.
  • Slowly decrease the amount of caffeine you drink every day. Caffeine can trigger migraines.

Take the quiz

Think you know all about migraines? Some of these facts may surprise you. Take the quick quiz.