I’ve got a headache — is it a migraine?

A migraine headache is a medical condition that is usually an intense, throbbing pain on one or sometimes both sides of the head. They are different physiologically from tension or other types of headaches, and need to be treated differently.

For those of you who suffer from migraines, you know you may feel the pain in the tem-ples or behind one eye or ear, although any part of the head can be involved. The pain is usually isolated to one side of the head and can often be very intense.

Besides pain, migraine headaches also can cause nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also may see spots or flashing lights or have a temporary loss of vision.

Migraines can occur any time of the day and the pain can last a few hours or up to one or two days. Frequency varies too. Some people get migraines once or twice a week. Others, only once or twice a year. Most of the time, migraines are not a threat to your overall health, but migraine attacks can interfere with your day-to-day life.

What causes migraines? Researchers don’t really know. Most think that migraines hap-pen when there are abnormal changes in the levels of substances you normally have in your brain, resulting in inflammation. The inflammation causes blood vessels in the brain to swell and press on nearby nerves, causing pain.

Common characteristics of migraine sufferers include being between the ages of 15 and 55; having a family history of migraine headaches; and migraines are more commonly diagnosed in women. Your genes may also have something to do with it. People who get migraines may have atypical genes for controlling the functions of certain brain cells.

Experts do know that people with migraines react to a variety of factors and events, called triggers. Some of the more common triggers include lack of or too much sleep; Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors; hormone changes during a woman’s menstrual cycle; stress and anxiety, or relaxation after stress; or weather changes.

What and how you eat can make a difference too. For some triggers include skipping a meal; drinking alcohol, often red wine; having too much or withdrawing from caffeine; foods that contain nitrates, such as hot dogs and lunch meats; foods that contain MSG (monosodium glutamate); foods that contain tyramine, such as aged cheeses, soy prod-ucts, fava beans, hard sausages, smoked fish, and Chianti wine; or Aspartame (Nu-traSweet® and Equal®).

To pinpoint your migraine triggers, it may be helpful to keep a headache diary. Each day you have a migraine headache, add an entry to your diary. Write down the time of day the headache started; where you were and what you were doing; what you ate or drank 24 hours before the attack; and, for women, the days you have your period.

There is no cure for migraine headaches, but you can manage the symptoms and try to control your triggers. Migraine symptoms are often treated with medications and by avoiding your triggers whenever possible. So don’t suffer alone. Work with your health care provider to find the right combination of actions to take to help you manage mi-graine headaches. For more information on migraines, visit womenshealth.gov.


Dr. Kim Fodor is an internist at SVMC Internal Medicine (svhealthcare.org). To make an appointment with Dr. Fodor, call (802 447-5519. “Health Matters” is a weekly col-umn meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.