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Myths and facts about migraines
These throbbing headaches are painful and often misunderstood. We debunk some common myths.
A migraine can be painful and draining. Your head throbs on one side, you can’t tolerate lights or sounds and you may have nausea. It can be bad enough to keep you in bed for hours — or even days.
People with migraines are familiar with these symptoms. But a bad headache isn’t always a migraine. In fact, the condition is still widely misunderstood. And if you do have migraines, getting a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is important.
Here, learn 5 common myths about migraines — and the facts you should know.
Myth #1: A migraine is just a bad headache.
Fact: A migraine is a significant neurological disorder.
A migraine is much more than a bad headache. It’s a neurological condition that affects about 12% of Americans, according to the Cleveland Clinic. “Both migraines and some other types of headaches happen when sensitive blood vessels, muscles and nerves in the head trigger a pain response,” says Vernon Williams, MD. He’s a sports neurologist and pain specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California.
The cause of the overstimulation is one of the factors that sets migraines and headaches apart. Migraines are known in the medical world as a type of primary headache. That means they’re not a symptom of another health problem.
Typical headaches are known as secondary headaches. That means they’re caused by another illness or condition, per the Mayo Clinic. Some common causes include:
- Nasal or sinus infection
- Panic attack
The symptoms of headaches and migraines can also feel different. A headache may appear as a dull ache, a throbbing sensation or a sharp pain. “A migraine is more intense and often has more symptoms than most other types of head pain,” Dr. Williams says.
If you have a combination of the following symptoms, chances are you have a migraine:
- Pounding or throbbing pain that covers the entire head
- Pain that shifts from one side of the head to the other
- Sensitivity to sounds, odors or light
- Blurred vision
- Seeing bright or flashing dots or wavy lines
- Loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting
Myth #2: Migraines are caused only by stress.
Fact: Migraines can have many potential triggers.
While stress can cause migraines, it’s not the only thing that sets them off. There are actually many different causes. And not everyone’s triggers are the same.
“Migraines can happen due to a lack of sleep, lighting, sounds, certain foods, menstrual cycles and more,” says Bradley Katz, MD. He’s a neuro-ophthalmologist at the Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Other migraine triggers include:
- Skipping meals
- Direct pressure to the head (such as wearing a hat or helmet)
- Physical activity
- Changes in the weather
- Strong smells
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Myth #3: Migraines can be cured.
Fact: Migraines can only be prevented.
“Unfortunately, there is no cure for migraines,” Dr. Katz says. “But you can reduce how many you have and their severity.”
The first step is making lifestyle changes to avoid your triggers. Adopt habits such as getting 8 hours of sleep every night, drinking plenty of water, cutting back on stress (when you can) and eating healthy meals.
Steer clear of any foods that have caused migraines in the past. While not all migraines are triggered by food, common culprits include:
- Processed meats
“If you don’t know what causes your migraines, keep a journal of triggers,” says Neal Alpiner, MD. He’s a pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation expert with Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Make a note of when a migraine occurs and what you did, ate or drank in the hours before it started. Be sure to jot down any other information that may help you identify your triggers.
Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can help you manage your symptoms. Some supplements may also help. Options include:
- Pain-relieving medications. These are taken to stop a migraine attack in its tracks. You can use OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil®) or prescription medications such as rizatriptan benzoate (Maxalt®).
- Preventive medications. Your doctor might prescribe medication that you take regularly to reduce the pain or frequency of migraines. These include blood pressure-lowering medications, antidepressants, antiseizure medications and Botox injections.
Some supplements also show promise in terms of migraine management, notes Dr. Alpiner. Those include riboflavin (vitamin B2), coenzyme Q10 and magnesium. But they should not replace the medications your doctor prescribes. Talk to your doctor or neurologist about which treatments are best for you.
Myth #4: All migraines are associated with headaches.
Fact: While the majority of migraines are associated with headaches, there are other types that are not. These include ocular migraines and abdominal migraines.
The symptoms of a migraine vary depending on which type you have. There are 2 major types that cause headaches: migraine with aura and migraine without aura.
Some people experience an aura before their headache hits. Symptoms of an aura can include flashing lights, zigzag lines and nausea, according to the American Academy of Neurology. A migraine without aura usually consists of severe headache pain that comes on without warning.
But not all migraines definitely lead to head pain. In fact, there are other kinds of migraines that have different symptoms:
- Vestibular migraine. This condition causes dizziness or balance problems, along with other symptoms. You might also get a headache with it, but not usually.
- Abdominal migraine. These cause regular attacks of moderate-to-severe stomach pain and vomiting. They often last between 2 and 72 hours.
- Visual (ocular) migraines. “You may experience a flash of light or lose part of your vision,” Dr. Alpiner says. You might get a headache with it, but not always.
Myth #5: Children don’t get migraines.
Fact: Some children do get migraines. But the symptoms may be different than those of adult migraines.
“It’s a common misconception that children don’t get migraines. They absolutely do,” says Dr. Alpiner. Abdominal migraines affect about 4 out of 100 children, according to the Migraine Trust. Children with this condition have abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
Luckily, most kids stop getting abdominal migraines once they get older. But many could develop migraine headaches later in life.
Migraine statistic: Cleveland Clinic (2021): “Migraine Headaches”
Secondary headaches: Mayo Clinic (2020). “Headache”
Abdominal migraine and kids: The Migraine Trust (2021). “Abdominal Migraine”