A lot of people say they have a migraine when they have a bad headache, but in fact a migraine is a specific type of headache. It is a common condition - around 1 in 5 (20%) women and 1 in 15 (7%) men will suffer with migraines. The frequency of attacks varies with some people having years between attacks, whilst others may get many attacks each month. Doctors may frequently be able to diagnose your migraine from what you tell them (your "history"), but sometimes you would need further investigation.
The main symptom is usually a moderate to severe headache on one side of the head. The pain is usually throbbing in nature and gradually worsens. Many people with also have nausea and vomiting and an increased sensitivity to light and sound. Some sufferers also develop abdominal pain. There are a few patients who develop the other symptoms alone and in fact do not develop the headache.
About one in three people will have an aura beforehand which lets them know a migraine is about to develop. This aura may include visual disturbances with flashing lights, zig-zag lines or blind spots in their vision.
The exact cause of migraines is unclear, but it is thought to be related to a temporary imbalance in certain chemicals in the brain and their effect on blood vessels and nerves.
Despite not knowing the exact cause there are certainly factors which can trigger a migraine in susceptible people such as hormonal changes (just before or during a woman's period), dietary factors (cheese, alcohol, salt, processed foods), and medicines (oral contraceptives).
If you suffer from migraines it is worth keeping a diary so that you can identify what triggers your migraines, and therefore try to avoid those triggers if possible.
Migraines will last between 4 to 72 hours and most people find out quite quickly what will help them. Most people need to lie down in a darkened quiet room to help their symptoms. Simple over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol are useful in many people and these are best taken as soon as you recognised a migraine developing.
If paracetamol doesn't help, or you are suffering frequent, debilitating migraines with vomiting, your GP can prescribe medicines for the sickness and painkillers combined. If simple painkillers do not work your GP is likely to try triptans which are specifically developed to help counteract the chemical changes in the brain during an attack. They should be used as soon as possible after the beginning of a migraine for them to work their best.
Prevention is important in migraines as they can be so debilitating. Avoidance of your personal triggers and getting enough sleep should be enough to decrease the incidence of attacks, but your GP can also prescribe preventative medicines (usually beta blockers) if you have very frequent attacks.