Migraines (Part 1) (Last Edited: 2009 Nov 19)

2008 August 2

This is part one of a four part series about migraine. You can continue to part two from the link at the bottom of this page. Or you can jump to any part from the Migraine FAQs page link.

In this series I have used reputable sources for the science of migraine. I’ll include the sources in the final post.

Key Facts

  • Migraine is more than a headache: it can be intensely painful and has distinct phases.
  • The disorder used to be considered a vascular one. But recent research reveals it to be neurological. It is now known to relate to a wave of nerve cell activity that sweeps across the brain.
  • The root of migraine may be in brain stem malfunctioning.
  • Although debate swirls about the precise cause of migraine, discoveries are already allowing the development of new treatments

1. “There’s no such thing as migraine.”

Worldwide more than 300 million people suffer migraine attacks. The condition is in the historical record, suggesting it is at least 7,000 years old. Yet it stays misunderstood generally, and is often poorly treated by the medical profession. There are still doctors who, like a section of the general public, dismiss migraine as a condition.

The annual cost to the US economy alone from lost work, welfare payments and health care costs is $17 billion. But modern medicine is beginning to make inroads into migraine, with new discoveries in genetics, brain imaging and molecular biology.

Part of the problem is that there appears no one condition as such. The average frequency of attacks for sufferers is one to two per month. But ten percent suffer weekly migraines, twenty percent experience migraines for two to three days. Up to fourteen percent have more than fifteen migraines per month (one every two days on average).

There is no single trigger for migraine generally. Listed triggers include alcohol, dehydration, exercise, menstruation, stress, weather or season changes, and on and on. Women tend to be more prone to migraine than men, but migraine occurs in both sexes. The peak age range for women lies between fifteen and fifty-five.

It used to be a leading theory that migraines were a physiological result of lowered blood flow in the brain. Recent evidence is now discounting this theory. Migraine is now seen as a disorder of the nervous system, arising from the brain stem. Studies of brain activity during migraine attack have proven scientifically that there are at least three key effects:

  • Cortical spreading depression.
  • Blood vessel dilation, followed by constriction.
  • Activity in three bundles of nerves, or “nuclei”, in the brain stem.

As well as these, genetic studies into predisposition to migraine show genes play a part. All this means that there is ample scientific evidence supporting the real existence of the condition. Not that sufferers need any convincing. A recent study found that the nerves carrying pain signals are 21% thicker in migraine sufferers than other people.

Go on to Part 2

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