One in seven people in the UK are affected by migraines, a painful, throbbing headache disorder that can cause nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Often debilitating, migraines are the sixth highest cause of time lost due to disability worldwide.
A migraine is a common health disorder that can affect people of any age, although more women suffer from migraines than men. Around one in five women and one in 15 men experience migraines.
There are several types of migraine, including a migraine with aura – where the migraine is preempted by warning signs such as flashing lights – and a migraine without aura, where there are no warning signs. Some people experience migraines without the headache, but experience other symptoms.
What causes a migraine?
Despite eight million people being affected by migraines in the UK, the neurological condition is still poorly understood and the exact cause of migraines is unknown.
Migraines are believed to be caused by the abnormal brain activity that temporarily affects nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain.
What causes the abnormal brain activity is not known either, but genes are thought to play a part. Other factors said to trigger migraines include stress and anxiety, a lack of sleep, tiredness, low blood sugar, specific foods, alcohol and environmental triggers such as flickering lights and screens.
Some women experience migraines around their period, which could be because of the fluctuation in hormone levels such as oestrogen. Medications such as the contraceptive pill are also thought to trigger migraines.
There is no cure for a migraine, but most people treat the symptoms with painkillers, rest, avoiding screens and staying in a darkened room. Anti-sickness medications may also be prescribed.
Migraines have been linked to a very small increased risk of ischaemic strokes, which occur when the blood supply to the brain is prevented by a clot or fatty material in the arteries. This risk is increased by the use of the combined contraceptive pill.