Updated 25 September 2019

Migraines – more than just a headache

Are headaches regularly hijacking your to-do list, seriously affecting your day-to-day functioning and quality of life?

Most of us have a headache from time to time, but do you know how to recognise when it’s more than “just a headache”? Isn’t a migraine just a bad headache? Nope! So what makes migraines different?

What is a migraine?

A Migraine is a throbbing, recurring headache that typically affects one side of the head and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and disturbed vision. Migraines can last from 4 – 72 hours, with frequency that varies from person to person.

Migraine is the most prevalent neurological condition in the developed world and according to the World Health Organisation, one of the 20 most disabling lifetime conditions.

What causes a migraine?

The majority of headaches are not migraines. Simply put, they are pain signals within your head. These headaches are most often associated with and made worse by fatigue, sleep deprivation, certain allergens or stress. They’re successfully treated by over-the-counter medication or rest.

The exact cause of migraines is not known. It is believed that abnormal brain functioning is involved. Sufferers are usually affected between their early twenties and their forties. 80% of all migraine sufferers are women. Migraines also tend to run in families, which points to a genetic component.

What are the symptoms?

A deep throbbing, pounding and pulsating pain behind or near the eye on one side of the head is generally reported by migraine sufferers. Tension headache pain can range from dull pressure to a tight squeeze on the head or around the neck. A migraine may cause sensitivity to bright light, loud noise or smells. Tension headaches rarely cause such sensitivities. Nausea, vomiting and an upset stomach are also common symptoms with migraine headaches, but rarely occur during a tension headache.

A visual aura (bright, flashing lights or dots appear in the field of vision) can occur before a migraine begins, though it’s not common even among people with a history of migraines. Other types of auras may occur, too. These could include loss of speech, pins and needles in arms or legs or vision loss.

What are the triggers?

When it comes to tension headaches, stress, fatigue, and sleep deprivation are the most common triggers.
When it comes to migraines, the most common triggers include foods, drinks, stress, smells, physical activity and sleep patterns. Common foods known to trigger migraines include chocolate, processed foods, dairy products and meats containing nitrates. Alcohol, caffeine and smoking are often culprits as well. In women, migraines are often associated with changes in oestrogen that occur during periods, pregnancy and menopause.

How to prevent migraines

There is no guaranteed way to prevent migraines. Certain lifestyle changes can help to reduce their occurrence and symptoms. The best way to avoid migraines is to avoid its triggers. Limiting caffeine, alcohol and smoking as well as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, may help. In women whose migraines are triggered by the oestrogen in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy, avoiding these medications and finding alternatives, may prevent attacks.


The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and identify triggers. Keeping a headache diary can help sufferers to learn what triggers their migraine attacks. For those with frequent attacks, preventative medication is available. Anti-depressants, beta-blockers or calcium blockers, seizure medication and Botox can all be taken to reduce the occurrence of migraines.

Remember, there can be unpleasant or harmful side-effects from many of the medications used to relieve migraines. Several alternative therapies for migraines seem to be effective, including acupuncture, bio-feedback, massage therapy and certain herbs and vitamins. Consult with your medical practitioner to avoid reactions with other medications.