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What's a migraine headache?

Throbbing and painful, migraine headaches can range from moderate to severe in intensity. Movement, light, sounds, or smells can make them worse, and they may come with nausea, vomiting, vision problems, and sensitivity to sounds and light. Migraines are much more intense and painful than ordinary tension headaches. They may last from 4 to 72 hours and can disrupt your life.


What causes migraines?

During a migraine, the blood vessels in your head narrow and widen, causing pain. Physical or mental stress or certain foods may trigger a migraine. But the exact cause isn't known.


What are the symptoms of a migraine?

You may feel intense, throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head. Some people see zigzags or flashes of light. Other symptoms include:


* tingling or numbness on one side of your body and trouble speaking


* loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting


* feeling of tenderness in your head and neck


* sensitivity to light and sounds.



How are migraines diagnosed?

No test can diagnose migraines, so your healthcare provider will ask you questions about your symptoms and perform an exam. He may order tests, such as X-rays and scans, to rule out other causes for your headaches. If no other cause is found, he'll make the diagnosis based on your symptoms.


How are migraines treated?

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help lessen the pain and suggest that you make some changes in your lifestyle. He may also prescribe medications to help you have fewer migraines.


When you're having a migraine, take your prescribed medicine as soon as it starts-don't wait for the pain to get worse. Then lie down in a dark, quiet room and place a cold cloth over your eyes.


What can I do to prevent migraines?

There are some lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent migraines:


* Change your diet. Don't skip meals, but avoid foods that may trigger migraines. (See Change your diet to prevent migraines.) These can vary from person to person, so keep a "headache diary" and write down the foods you ate before a migraine started. This helps you identify foods you should avoid.


* Develop goodsleep habits. Stick to a schedule to go to sleep and wake up, even on the weekends.


* Take medicine as prescribed. Use aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain, unless you shouldn't take these medicines for some reason. Your healthcare provider will prescribe a stronger pain medication if you need it. Be sure to take it exactly as prescribed because overuse of some medications can make migraines worse.


* Reduce stress in your life. Regularly practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or biofeedback. Your healthcare provider can help you learn more about these stress reducers.



Change your diet to prevent migraines

These foods may trigger migraines. Avoid them if you get migraines after eating or drinking them.


* beverages or foods containing caffeine


* dairy products


* cheddar, mozzarella, Parmesan, provolone, and Romano cheeses


* hotdogs, salami, cold cuts, and bacon


* chicken livers and smoked fish


* MSG (monosodium glutamate)


* figs, avocados, onions, and bananas


* chocolate


* nuts and peanut butter


* red wine



Source: American Medical Association. Complete Medical Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Random House Reference; 2003.