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  • Dr. Mark Freund

What Causes Migraines?

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

causes of migraines

Headaches and migraines can often be a thorn in the side. The debilitating pain can sometimes be unbearable to a point where it's impossible to perform daily activities. For some, it's a random occurrence, and for others, it can occur frequently. However, it usually comes out of nowhere, making them a nightmare to deal with. This article will cover the different migraine causes and symptoms you need to know and how chiropractic care can help.

What are migraines, and what are the causes?

More than just the cause of "bad headaches," migraine is a neurological condition that may cause multiple symptoms. While intense, debilitating headaches come with additional symptoms like:

  • nausea

  • vomiting

  • numbness or tingling

  • difficulty speaking

  • sensitivity to sound or light

The condition can affect all ages and often runs in families. The diagnosis of a migraine is determined based on reported symptoms, clinical history, and by ruling out other potential migraine causes. The most common categories of migraines are episodic versus chronic, and those without aura and those with aura.

So what causes a migraine? Researchers haven't identified a definitive cause of migraine. But they believe the condition is caused by abnormal brain activity affecting chemicals, blood vessels, and nerve signaling in the brain. There are a myriad migraine triggers that are frequently reported, including:

  • severe heat, or other extremes in weather

  • bright lights

  • changes in barometric pressure

  • use of certain medications, like oral contraceptives or nitroglycerin

  • hormone changes in people assigned female at birth, like progesterone and estrogen fluctuations during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause

  • loud sounds

  • intense physical activity

  • dehydration

  • excess stress

  • skipping meals

  • certain foods

  • smoking

  • alcohol use

  • traveling

  • changes in sleep patterns

  • unusual smells

If you experience a migraine attack, your physician may ask you to keep a headache journal. Writing down what foods you ate, what you were doing, and what medications you took before your migraine attack began can help identify your triggers.

What does a migraine feel like?

Here are some common migraine symptoms and feelings that you may experience when suffering from migraines:

what migraine feels like

  • Throbbing pain or pounding that is moderate to severe and may like the pain is engulfing the entire head

  • Abdominal problems include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or an unsettled stomach."

  • Vision troubles including blurriness, bright/flashing dots, wavy or jagged lines

  • Heightened sensitivity to sounds, odors, or light

These headaches also feel like a severe, dull, steady ache. The pain usually starts as mild. But without treatment, it can quickly become moderate to severe. Migraine pain affects the forehead. It's usually on one side, but it can shift or occur on both sides of your head.

Migraine Types

Migraine manifests in many ways, but a person experiencing migraine may go through four phases. The main phase of migraine typically lasts between 4 to 72 hours. Before this, some people experience pre-migraine warning signs, including sleep disorders and fatigue, hours before the attack. This is known as the 'prodromal phase.' Some individuals also experience aura - visual, sensory, and speech disturbances. Migraine sufferers may also experience lingering effects of migraine following an attack. There are several types of migraine based on the different symptoms and triggers that people living with migraine can experience. Some of the examples are:

Migraines with Aura

Migraines are prevalent and affect about 10% of the world population. 20% of people with migraines suffer from more distinct warning signs that affect their motor, visual and verbal function. And about 15% of migraine sufferers experience auras. Migraine with aura is recurring headaches that strike simultaneously or after sensory disturbances called an aura. These disturbances can include blind spots, flashes of light, or tingling in your face or hand. Treatments for migraine with aura and without aura usually require the same medications and self-care measures.

Three common types of auras accompany the migraine:

  1. Visual aura. This common migraine aura is characterized by temporary changes in your vision, such as flashing lights or zigzags.

  2. Dysphasic aura. This is the least common form of migraine aura. It includes language and verbal disturbances like mumbling or slurred speech.

  3. Sensorimotor aura. Motor or sensory disturbances may include tingling, numbness, or weakness, which may or may not be accompanied by a visual aura.

However, what causes a migraine aura? Like other forms of migraines, it can't be determined on your own. Often, you'll need a complete examination from your doctor so they can access your family history and reported symptoms.

Migraines without aura

The most common type of migraine is the migraine without aura. 'Aura' is a warning indicator of a migraine. Typically it's a symptom that affects your sight, such as blind spots or seeing flashing lights. If you have a migraine without aura, you won't get a warning sign that a migraine attack is about to start. Migraine attacks without aura usually last between four and three days if they aren't treated. The frequency of these attacks may vary. They could happen several times a week or a few times a year. Migraine without aura can sometimes be called hemicrania simplex or common migraine.

Symptoms of migraines without aura:

  • Have nausea or vomiting

  • Being sensitive to light, sound, and smells.

  • A headache that may only be on one side of the head. It can worsen when you move, such as walking or climbing the stairs. It is so severe that you can't do your normal daily activities.

Ocular Migraines (also called retinal migraines)

Ocular or retinal migraine is a rare condition characterized by sudden changes in vision that only affects one eye. Usually, these symptoms occur before the headache happens. Proper diagnosis of retinal migraine is critical, as a vision problem that affects one eye can be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as stroke or a detached retina. Once diagnosed with ocular or retinal migraines, managing the condition usually focuses on identifying and avoiding triggers, preventing episodes with lifestyle changes, and some of the same prophylactic medications used to prevent migraine headaches.

migraine types and symptoms

A common ocular migraine symptom is a small blind spot that impairs the central vision in one eye. This blind spot can expand, making it difficult to read using the affected eye or drive safely.

In addition to the blind spot, other migraine symptoms may include:

  • A blind spot that slowly expands across your field of vision

  • A colorful light ring that is zigzag or wavy and surrounds a central blind spot

  • Sensitivity to sound or light

  • Vomiting and nausea

  • Vision loss

  • A headache that feels worse when moving

  • A migraine that lasts between 4 and 42 hours

Hemiplegic Migraines

Hemiplegic migraine is uncommon and occurs when individuals experience weakness on one side of their body along with headaches and other symptoms that are usually the same as seen in other migraines. The weakness is a symptom of migraine aura and occurs with other migraine aura signs like changes in vision, sensation, or speech. The hemiplegic migraine can happen to individuals with people who have an existing family history or as a one-off occurrence for individuals without any family history of migraines. Since this is a rare condition, if you develop weakness with your migraine, seek immediate medical attention and do not make assumptions about your condition.

The symptoms of hemiplegic migraines usually last for hours to days or even weeks in rare cases, but most will completely disappear.

Primary symptoms may include:

  • Weakness on one side of your body

  • Other aura symptoms such as vision changes, numbness, tingling, and trouble speaking

  • Headache

A person may also experience:

  • Fever

  • Changes in consciousness, from confusion to profound coma

  • Problems with coordination

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Increased sensitivity to sound and light

Migraine Treatment & Prevention

For some people, migraines are an occasional inconvenience they can tolerate. For others, it's a debilitating condition that severely impacts their quality of life and daily actions. With proper doctor guidance, a multi-facet approach using cutting-edge migraine treatments is helping individuals better manage their migraines. It's important to always seek medical attention for migraines to ensure you're properly diagnosed so that you don't mistake migraine for a condition that could be far worse. Not to mention, your doctor can prescribe you the best treatment options.

Acute Medications

At the first warning signs of migraines, acute medications can relieve pain and stop the migraine from further progressing. For mild symptoms, over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, along with prescription pain relief medications such as opioids, are the first line of treatment. For moderate to severe symptoms or when the symptoms aren't effective, other types of medications are available, including:

migraine relief options
  • Triptans are medications that specifically treat migraines by blocking certain pain pathways. Triptans are available in tablets to swallow or easily dissolve under your tongue or as a nasal spray or injection.

  • Ergot alkaloids work similarly to triptans. They are an excellent alternative for patients who don't respond well to triptans.

  • Serotonin 5-HT1F Agonists are a new form of migraine treatment. It works on the individual's serotonin receptors in your brain and activates them. Once activated, they help block pain signals.

  • Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) receptor antagonists block the CGRP protein, which is associated with intensifying the pain of a migraine.

Preventative Medications

For individuals experiencing severe attacks or more than four migraines a month, your doctor can prescribe a preventive medication to decrease the severity or frequency. These medications include:

  • Blood pressure-lowering medications can prevent the blood vessels from dilating, which reduces the frequency of attacks.

  • Tricyclic antidepressants affect serotonin levels and other brain chemicals and may prevent migraines.

  • Anti-seizure drugs restore the normal balance of nerve activity inside the brain and help prevent migraines.

  • Botox injections block the pain signal pathways in the head and neck, leading to migraine pain.

  • CGRP monoclonal antibodies are antibodies used to target and block the CGRP protein.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Migraines

If you experience migraines or other severe headaches regularly, you'll need to work closely with your doctor to get the relief you need. Take these questions to your next appointment with your doctor, so they can help you reduce potential causes that can further trigger or exacerbate the condition.

  • How can I pinpoint what triggers my migraines?

  • Should I keep a headache diary, and if so, what should I track in it?

  • Will my migraine symptoms go away in a few years?

  • Can hypnosis, biofeedback, or other non-drug treatments help?

  • Could any of my medicines, like birth control pills, make my migraine headaches worse?

  • Can over-the-counter drugs be strong enough to ease my pain? If so, what should I take, and how often should I take these drugs?

  • Would prescription medications that prevent migraines help me?

  • Are there any side effects of the drugs you've prescribed? What can I do to prevent them?

  • Can lifestyle changes help prevent my headaches, such as diet, exercise, or meditation?

  • How might my migraine headaches affect my life, and what changes should I make?

How a Chiropractor Can Help With Migraines

Because of the potential side effects of medication use, some people living with migraine have decided to search for drug-free alternative relief such as chiropractic care and acupuncture. But is there any evidence that chiropractic care can reduce migraines? One study found that a combination of adjustments from a chiropractor and massage reduced the intensity of migraine symptoms for patients by an average of 68%.

What does a chiropractor do for migraines?

Upper cervical-specific chiropractic care aims to align the C1 and C2 vertebrae. These bones are in a unique position that correlates to migraine occurrence. Here's why:

Blood Flow

The cervical vertebrae facilitate blood flow through the vertebral foramen, bone loops that allows arteries with safe passage. When the atlas and axis bone become misaligned, the blood flow to the brain can be thrown off. If blood flow to parts of the brain is impacted, it can lead to symptoms of migraines.

Brainstem Function

The atlas protects and surrounds the brainstem right at the central location where it meets the spinal cord. This area is vital for involuntary body functions, and misalignment can cause pressure that inhibits brainstem function. Migraines are one typical result of this alteration to the brainstem.

Cerebrospinal Fluid Drainage

Upper cervical misalignments can prevent cerebrospinal fluid from draining properly. This can lead to pressure buildup in the skull. Increased intracranial pressure is a typical sign of neurological conditions like migraines. Many distinct factors related to the upper neck can lead to the onset of migraines. This makes it imperative for people with this neurological condition to seek the help of a specialized upper cervical chiropractor to correct even the slightest of subluxations in the base of the skull.

Correcting Upper Cervical Misalignments to Reduce Migraines

Upper cervical chiropractors are trained to correct the slightest misalignment within the C1 and C2 vertebrae. Accurate measurements are taken using diagnostic x-ray imaging to ensure consideration down to fractions of a millimeter. This means the chiropractor can customize corrections for each patient.

what does a chiropractor do for migraine

Upper cervical adjustments are always extremely gentle. Some patients wonder if anything even moved in their neck until they see the results. This is an effective way to receive drug-free alternative care that is safe for anyone in your family.

To discover more about chiropractic care for migraines or to schedule a no-obligation consultation, we encourage you to contact us at Natural Care Chiropractic. Seeing an upper cervical chiropractor for migraines could be just what you need.


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