If you or someone you know suffers from migraine headaches, you may have some idea of how debilitating they can be, but you may not be aware of their many possible underlying causes. In truth, there is still a lot of debate within the medical research community regarding what causes migraine headaches.
Genetic predisposition and environmental factors seem to be at the heart of most migraine onsets, as they can both cause the body to be susceptible to changes in the trigeminal nerve, which is one of the body’s major pain highways. If a trigger event causes a drop in the body’s serotonin level, the trigeminal nerve begins to release neuropeptides which travel to the brain and cause these severe headaches.
The actual triggers themselves are many and varied and the gap from trigger to migraine onset can be anywhere from an hour to a couple of days. Overall, the most common migraine triggers seem to be:
Hormonal Changes in Women
Changes in estrogen levels seem to be a cause of headaches in women who have a known history of migraines, with most headaches reported immediately prior to or during their periods, since there is a major drop in estrogen. There is also an increase in migraines reported during pregnancy and menopause. A corollary may exist in some women between the use of oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy and migraines.
This category most commonly includes chocolate, aspartame, monosodium glutamate, nitrites, aged cheese and alcohol as well as caffeine, although there are others.
Blood sugar levels can have a definite causal relationship with the number and severity of migraines an individual experiences. When blood sugar is low, the brain senses that it needs more fuel and, among other actions, it affects the concentrations of the hormones that control the size of blood vessels in the brain. When the vessels start to swell and contract, the brain reacts and you have the right conditions for a migraine headache. Keeping blood sugar levels consistent throughout the day is one way to limit migraines.
Loud noises, bright light (including the glare from the Sun), unusual odors (even pleasant ones), can all be migraine causes.
Fatigue, hunger, even jet lag can each be responsible for causing a migraine event.
Other possible triggers being considered are certain medications, changes in the environment such as weather, changes in sleep schedule, and stress in general.
One of the frustrations facing the medical community, as well as migraine sufferers themselves, is the fact that there is no specific test or exam that can be given to determine if an individual is indeed suffering from migraines. The best that can be done is to eliminate the possibility of other medical conditions by doing a full physical examination, possibly including an MRI, CT scan, or even a lumbar puncture. This can rule out other health issues such as sinus conditions, simple tension or even a brain disorder.
Whatever it is that triggers migraines, it’s easier to narrow down the causes by keeping a migraine journal, where the patient records when they have headaches, their severity and length as well as any possible contributing triggers.