For most people, migraines are an occasional annoyance that comes and goes. But for a small minority, migraines are a chronic affliction that causes excruciating long-term pain and affects every area of their lives. But how do you know if your migraines are chronic?
What is a Migraine?
A migraine is a neurological disorder that causes severe pulsing of throbbing headaches. Migraines usually affect one side of the head and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
A migraine headache can last anywhere between 4 to 72 hours and can be so debilitating that it becomes impossible to engage in everyday activities. Without treatment, migraines can significantly impact your productivity and overall quality of life.
What Causes Migraines?
The root cause of migraines is not fully understood. However, researchers believe that migraines are caused by the activation of trigeminal afferents due to neuronal dysfunction. This triggers a cascade of changes in the brain, resulting in the characteristic symptoms of a migraine headache. Factors that can trigger a migraine attack include:
- Hormonal changes in women (migraines are three times more common in women than men)
- Certain foods or additives
- Excessive stress
- Poor sleeping habits
- Sensory stimuli (bright lights, loud noises)
- Drastic changes in sleep patterns
- Weather changes
- Physical head trauma
- Alcohol and substance abuse
- Some medications
- Gene variations
Stages of a Migraine
Migraines tend to follow a specific pattern. And although not everyone experiences all the stages, knowing what they are can help you better understand your condition and work with your doctor to find the best possible treatment.
There are four main stages of a migraine:
Also known as the “warning phase,” prodrome refers to the symptoms that occur 1-2 days before a migraine attack. These may include mood changes, neck stiffness, increased appetite, moodiness, and frequent urination.
Approximately 25 percent of people with migraines experience aura–sensory disturbances that precede or accompany the migraine attack. Aura symptoms can include visual disturbances such as flashing lights or blind spots, pins and needles in the hand or face, difficulty speaking, and a temporary loss of vision.
The migraine attack is the actual headache phase characterized by throbbing or pulsing pain, often on one side of the head. The pain can be moderate to severe and is often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and dizziness.
This final stage – which usually lasts up to 24 hours – is sometimes called the “migraine hangover.” During this phase, you may feel drained, confused, and exhausted. You may also experience residual pain and sensitivity to light and sound.
Identifying Chronic Migraines
Migraines can be classified as either chronic or episodic. To be diagnosed with chronic migraines, you must have experienced headaches for at least 15 days per month for three months or longer. Of those days, eight must include other migraine symptoms such as sensitivity to light or sound, nausea, and vomiting.
On the other hand, episodic migraines are less frequent, occurring less than 15 days per month. Without treatment, episodic migraines can become chronic.
The Bottom Line
Chronic migraines can be frustrating and challenging to treat. If you have been experiencing constant migraines that interfere with your day-to-day life, talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for you. With the proper treatment and self-care, it is possible to reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches and improve your overall quality of life.