What causes migraine headaches and what are their symptoms? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The exact causes of migraine headaches remain a mystery.  According to the Mayo Clinic, genetics and environmental factors “appear to play a role,” but best estimates of the causes of migraines include chemical imbalances in the brain, particularly with regard to serotonin, a hormone produced in the pineal gland, which is usually associated with mood, appetite and anxiety, but which also affects the central nervous system.  Specific to women, the Mayo Clinic also speculates that fluctuations in the production of estrogen may also be a factor.  Consumption of certain substances, including monosodium glutamate and alcoholic beverages are also considered likely triggers for incidences of migraines.  In addition, environmental changes, including changes in weather patterns and barometric pressure as well as exposure to exceptionally bright light can also be causes.  [See www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120/DSECTION=causes]

Similar to the Mayo Clinic’s studies, researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center list as triggers – which may differ from causes – emotional stress, intense physical exertion, sudden weather changes, lack of sleep, and travel motion, as well as certain foods and chemical substances, once again including monosodium glutamate and alcohol.  As with the Mayo’s findings, the university medical researchers list aged cheeses as a probable trigger. [www.umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/migraine-headaches]    The American Migraine Foundation says this about migraine headaches:

“Although we do not clearly understand how a migraine brain is different or what happens in the brain to start a migraine, we know that individuals with migraine are more susceptible to the influence of transient factors, termed ‘triggers’ that raise the risk for having a migraine headache.  These triggers include hormonal fluctuations; environmental stimuli like weather or bright lights, certain smells, alcohol, certain foods, poor sleep, and high stress.  However, not everyone has a clear trigger for their migraine attacks.” [www.americanmigrainefoundation.org/mobile/about-migraine/]

The symptoms of migraine headaches include abrupt changes in mood prior to the initiation of an attack, need for sleep, restlessness, and changes in appetite (note the similarity between these early indicators of a migraine attack and the role of serotonin in regulating mood and appetite and in the central nervous system).  Immediately prior to the attack, an individual may experience the sensation of “seeing” spots floating around one’s head and of bright lights, and may experience tingling and numbness in upper extremities.  Once the attack occurs, symptoms include sharp, stabbing pains in one or both sides of the head, which may include throbbing; nausea from the intensity of the pain; and an inability to function, especially in a lighted environment.

hermy27 | Student

The pain associated with migraines occurs when blood vessels engorge to the point in which chemicals from the nerve fibers (which encapsulate the blood vessels) are released.  The temporal artery (found around the hair line near one’s eyes) enlarges and releases neurotransmitters that cause inflammation and intense pain.  Some researchers believe that there could be a link between hormone fluctuations and the onset of migraines, as elevated levels of testosterone, estrogen, and serotonin have been found in those who suffer from chronic migraines.

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