What Really Goes Wrong When You Have Migraines

February 19, 2016
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What Goes Wrong When You Have Migraines | Innovative Health

What Goes Wrong When You Have Migraines | Innovative Health

Migraines are not just headaches; they are complex neurological events that can significantly disrupt daily life. Understanding what goes wrong during a migraine is crucial for effective management and relief.


Introduction to Migraines

Migraines affect millions worldwide, with symptoms ranging from moderate to severe. Beyond the throbbing pain typically associated with migraines, sufferers often experience a combination of symptoms that can last for hours or even days. The impact on work, relationships, and overall quality of life cannot be understated.

Are you one of the many suffering from new or chronic migraines? You are searching or have given up hope that you will find something that will work for you. There are traditional medications given for migraines such as Imitrex, maxalt, relpax, and Propranolol to name a few.

There are alternative therapies such as acupuncture, essential oils, chiropractic care, and massages. Alternative and traditional care work for many, but there are many more who still have persistent headaches. Other individuals don’t want to be on medications for the rest of their life. This brings us to the focus of this article, which is what causes migraines.

There has long been a debate about whether vascular or neurological issues lead to migraines. Research has shown that migraines are neurologically based. It is important to remember that part of your nervous system is your autonomics which will control vascular diameter to allow blood flow to different areas.

The term used to describe neurological changes is “cortical spreading depression”, which we will call CSD. CSD results in failure in a part of the brain that will then spread to other parts. The first part that fails can be the aura that individuals experience. For example, if you have CSD in your occipital lobe you will have a visual aura where you may see spots or streaks. From here it is a chain of events that leads to failure in the other parts of the brain. Let’s focus on the basics of cellular function of the brain.

The Neuron

The functional cell of the brain is known as a neuron. Each neuron has a resting activity level and in order for it to fire it will need to hit its firing threshold. For example, let’s assume the resting level is 40 and the firing level is 70. When CSD occurs, let’s assume the resting level is increased to 55 which puts it closer to the firing level of 70. This leads to less stimulation needed before the neuron will fire.

The increased resting level happens before a migraine occurs and can actually precede it by weeks. The increased firing rate leads to the use of more energy. This increased energy usage will lead to energy depletion. The need for energy creates stress on the mitochondria which results in increased production of inflammatory chemicals.

What Can Lead to Abnormal Cortical Activity?

While the principle mechanism for migraines is neurologically based, it is important to remember that there are many things that can affect the brain. An alternation in female hormones, anemia, thyroid, or other metabolic issues can contribute to and trigger neurological dysfunction. Head injuries such as concussions, repetitive hits, or mild traumatic brain injury. A leaky gut can lead to systemic inflammation that will trigger excessive neuronal firing. This is why it is important to have a comprehensive examination that includes more than a basic physical and neurological exam. By understanding the cause and contributing factors of migraines you can now evaluate other aspects of your health that could be acting as a trigger and predisposing you to recurrent attacks.


The Anatomy of a Migraine

At the core of a migraine is abnormal brain activity. Research suggests that changes in neurotransmitter levels and blood flow within the brain play a significant role. Triggers such as stress, hormonal fluctuations, certain foods, and environmental factors can set off this cascade of events, leading to the onset of a migraine attack.


Pain and Discomfort

Pain during migraines is often described as pulsating or throbbing and is typically localized to one side of the head. This pain can be debilitating, making it difficult to carry out daily tasks. Alongside the pain, many individuals experience nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.


Cognitive Effects

During a migraine, cognitive function may be impaired. This can manifest as difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and confusion. These cognitive symptoms can further exacerbate the challenges of living with migraines, affecting work performance and interpersonal relationships.


Emotional Toll

Migraines not only affect the body but also take a toll on mental health. Mood swings, irritability, and feelings of sadness are common during migraine attacks. For those dealing with chronic migraines, the constant cycle of pain and discomfort can contribute to anxiety and depression.


Physical Symptoms Beyond Pain

In addition to head pain, migraines can produce a range of physical symptoms. Visual disturbances such as aura, characterized by flashes of light or blind spots, are common. Some individuals may also experience tingling sensations, weakness in the limbs, or even temporary paralysis.


Impact on Daily Life

The impact of migraines extends far beyond the duration of the attack itself. Work productivity may suffer, leading to missed days and strained relationships with colleagues. Social activities may need to be canceled or avoided altogether, causing feelings of isolation and frustration.


Treatment Options

While there is no cure for migraines, various treatment options can help manage symptoms and reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. Medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, are available for acute relief. Additionally, lifestyle modifications such as stress management, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet can be beneficial.


Alternative Therapies

Many individuals explore alternative therapies to complement traditional treatments. Practices such as acupuncture, yoga, and biofeedback have shown promise in reducing migraine frequency and intensity. It’s essential to discuss these options with a healthcare professional to ensure safety and effectiveness.


Managing Triggers

Identifying and avoiding triggers is key to managing migraines effectively. Keeping a migraine diary can help pinpoint triggers such as certain foods, hormonal changes, or environmental factors. Strategies for coping with unavoidable triggers, such as stress management techniques, can also be beneficial.


Seeking Professional Help

For those living with migraine, seeking professional help is vital. Neurologists and headache specialists can provide specialized care and develop personalized treatment plans tailored to individual needs. Don’t hesitate to reach out for support and guidance on managing migraines.


Support Systems

Building a strong support network is essential for coping with migraines. Friends, family, and support groups can offer understanding, empathy, and practical assistance during challenging times. Online communities also provide a valuable platform for connecting with others who share similar experiences.


Research and Future Directions

Advances in migraine research offer hope for improved treatments and outcomes. Scientists continue to explore the underlying mechanisms of migraine, paving the way for targeted therapies. By participating in clinical trials and staying informed about the latest developments, individuals can contribute to advancing migraine research.


Living Well with Migraines

Despite the challenges posed by migraine, it’s possible to live well with this condition. Adopting a holistic approach to wellness, including self-care practices, stress management techniques, and regular exercise, can help minimize the impact of migraines on daily life. Remember that you are not alone, and support is available.



Migraines are more than just headaches; they are complex neurological events that can disrupt every aspect of life. By understanding the underlying mechanisms and exploring effective management strategies, individuals can regain control and live well despite migraine.



FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)


Can migraines be cured?

While there is no cure for migraine, various treatments can help manage symptoms and reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.


Are migraine hereditary?

There is a genetic component to migraine, with a family history often present in individuals who suffer from migraines.


Can migraines be triggered by certain foods?

Yes, certain foods and beverages, such as aged cheeses, chocolate, and alcohol, can trigger migraines in susceptible individuals.


Is migraine more common in women than men?

Yes, migraines are more prevalent in women, with hormonal fluctuations playing a significant role in triggering attacks.


When should I seek medical attention for migraine?

If you experience frequent or severe migraine that interfere with your daily life, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

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