I remember my first migraine – the swirling, fuzzy shapes that appeared in front of my eyes, the super-sensitivity to light and sound, and the sharp pain in my head that wouldn’t go away. I remember being in school when I first started experiencing these symptoms and all I wanted to do was to run out of the room and curl up into a ball on the floor. Of course, all illnesses would be easier to manage if they only occurred when we were at home, already in bed! I managed to make it home, take a couple of over-the-counter painkillers, and sleep for several hours, after which time the headache has dissipated. I was unsure what had triggered that migraine, and others that have followed over the years, but I was scared of what I could have done to initiate such an agonizing headache.

I later learned that among women aged 18-44 years, the three-month prevalence of migraine is 26.1%, which is the highest of any demographic group. A relationship between female hormones and migraines has been identified, and many women who experience migraines indicate that they are related to their menstrual cycle and happen around the same time each month, often along with menstruation. The swirling, fuzzy shapes in front of my eyes that were a first indicator of my impending migraine are known as an “aura,” and women whose migraines come with an “aura” also may have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Luckily, I have identified strategies to prevent migraines before they start, and they generally work. I try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, to exercise regularly, and to drink lots of water. Fortunately these are lifestyle changes that may help prevent the cardiovascular disease that is associated with the “aura” of my migraines. Some people also have specific food triggers that they try to avoid in order to prevent migraines, along with stress-limitation exercises like yoga or meditation. I am glad not to rely on pharmaceutical treatments for my occasional migraines, but these options also exist for people who have more frequent or more severe headaches. In the longer term, at least we women can also take solace in the fact that the risk of migraine decreases after menopause! Something to look forward to?

References:

Smitherman, Todd A; R Burch; H Sheikh; E Loder. “The Prevalence, Impact, and Treatment of Migraine and Severe Headaches in the United States: A Review of Statistics from National Surveillance Studies.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 53:3. March 2013. pp427-436.

Sacco, S; S Ricci; D Degan; A Carolei, “Migraine in Women: the Role of Hormones and their Impact on Vascular Diseases.” J Headache Pain. 2012. 13:177-189.

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