Headache

Migraine Triggers

In my post on acute treatment I discussed preventing migraine attacks by identifying triggers.  Triggers can be internal or external and are essentially any change or event which causes a migraine to occur.

How do triggers cause migraine?

Every individual who suffers with migraine will have a “threshold”.  I like to think of this as a line: anything which pushes you over the line will cause a migraine, and the factors which push you over the line are your triggers.  These triggers tend to be multiple and work together but some will be stronger or more potent than others.

triggers
Migraine Triggers National Migraine Centre

How can I spot my triggers?

There are a few useful facts about migraine that are instrumental in identifying triggers:

  1. Migraine takes 12-24 hours to develop, which is much longer than most people suspect
  2. Different people have different triggers what causes migraine in one individual may not in another
  3. Migraine thresholds vary. That line I discussed above can move up or down at different points in your life: this can make “new triggers” appear if your line is particularly low as you are more susceptible to its effects than before.

What sorts of things act as triggers?

As I have said, triggers vary greatly from person to person but there are a few themes that are common to most people who suffer with migraine and I will list some examples:

  • Diet: You just have to enter the word migraine into a search engine and lots of posts about specific food triggers like cheese, chocolate and citrus will come up.  Although specific triggers do exist, these have largely been disregarded by headache professionals.  Historically, when people have tracked their migraine they have identified that they would ingest cheese, chocolate etc two hours before attacks: these must be triggers right?  Unfortunately not.  They are now thought to be cravings brought on by a drop in blood sugar level before the migraine starts.  However, rapid changes in blood sugar level can act as a migraine trigger so I advise people to avoid fast-burning carbohydrates (i.e. very sugary foods) where possible and concentrate on a high-protein diet eating slow burning (i.e. brown rice, brown pasta etc) carbohydrates where possible.  People should also avoid skipping meals and consider adding in healthy snacks during the day and before bed-time to prevent their blood sugars from fluctuating to often.

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    • Sleep:  changes in sleep pattern are another common trigger.  Many people identify lack of sleep as a trigger but do not always think about their sleep routine: shifts in this normal pattern of even up to an hour each way can precipitate a migraine.  An example of this is a weekend where someone may have stayed up an hour later on the Friday night or treated themselves to a lie-in on the Saturday morning.  This can be one of the factors that results in a weekend migraine.  It can also be a particular problem for shift-workers as I certainly found when rotating through my hospital jobs.
    • Stress: this emotion does get implicated in a lot of medical and psychological problems but it certainly has a role in migraine.  Often it is noted that the migraine occurs when the stress has been alleviated (i.e. when people relax).  However, other emotions can trigger migraine too: anger, excitement, sorrow, joy… this can be particularly evident in children who often have attacks when they’re excited about events such as birthday parties or trips out.

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  • Hormones:  a study at the National Migraine Centre showed that 50% of women were more likely to suffer a migraine attack at the time of their period.  Menstrual migraines exclusively occur during a woman’s period but most women have attacks at other times of the month too which means this is one of their triggers but not the entire cause.  Some women who are sensitive to hormonal changes benefit from regulation of their cycle with the contraceptive pill or coil, unfortunately this can exacerbate symptoms in others.  Women who are hormonally sensitive may find their migraine attacks are much worse around the menopause and thus can benefit from HRT.
  • Neck and back pain: any type of muscular or joint pain in the neck and back can exacerbate migraine.  This can be as simple as poor posture or a muscular injury.  This can be improved with gentle exercises, physiotherapy or osteopathy.
  • Light sensitivity: although this can sometimes be a prodrome rather than a trigger, some people are light sensitive between migraine attacks and this can contribute towards causing further migraines.  Computers or VDUs can be a source of this and it is the blue-green wavelengths emitted which are troublesome.  There are programmes available which act as a screen filter and some people benefit from tinted lenses on their glasses.  Taking frequent breaks from looking at a screen is also important.

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Why should I bother?

Most people who have migraine do not want to take medication, and taking too much can lead to problems such as medication overuse headache.  If you can identify your triggers and try to eliminate them through life-style measures you can reduce the number of attacks you have (some studies show by 50%!).  The way to identify these triggers is to keep a diary.

For more information see:

The Migraine Trust – Triggers

The National Migraine Centre Factsheet

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