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Understanding Migraine headaches Understanding Migraine headaches
The exact cause of migraine headaches is unknown though it is known that migraines activate the sympathetic nervous system. This part of the... Understanding Migraine headaches

by Kimberly Allen R.N.

A migraine is defined as a “chronic neurological disorder characterized by moderate to severe headaches and nausea.”  In other words it’s a type of headache involving the blood vessels in and around the brain.  A migraine headache occurs when the blood vessels become swollen and enlarged, known as vasodialation.  When the blood vessels become swollen and enlarged they stretch the nerves that are wrapped around them causing them to release certain chemicals.  These chemicals cause increased inflammation to the blood vessels resulting in severe pain.  Typically migraines affect only one side of the head and are accompanied by other symptoms with a duration that can range from 2 to 72 hrs.

The exact cause of migraine headaches is unknown though it is known that migraines activate the sympathetic nervous system.  This part of the nervous system is known for the “flight or fight” response.  It is the activity of the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for the other symptoms associated with migraines.  For example it is the increased activity in the intestines that results in the nausea and vomiting associated with migraines,  the reason many oral medications are ineffective in treating migraines is because the activity of the sympathetic nervous system causes a delay in emptying the stomach into the small intestine delaying absorption of the medication into the blood stream. It is also responsible for the sensitivity to light and sound that are frequently experienced by migraine sufferers.

Research has shown there are several possible external “triggers’ that are responsible for migraine headaches.  The most common trigger is emotional stress.  During periods of increased stress the brain releases chemicals that initiate the “flight or fight” response.  A sensitivity to certain chemicals and preservatives found in processed foods, the most common being nitrates found in hot dogs and certain lunch meats.  Caffeine is another common “trigger”.  If you consume too much caffeine or if you suddenly stop caffeine intake.  There are also medical conditions like asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome that are associated with migraine headaches.

There are approximately 28 million Americans suffering from migraine headaches creating problems with missed work and decreased productivity.  Despite the knowledge of and effects of migraines they continue to be under diagnosed and under treated.  Migraines are frequently diagnosed when the sufferer presents to the doctorr with symptoms of the sympathetic response accompanied by the severe pain of migraine headaches.  As a rule migraine headaches usually begin in childhood or early adulthood.  There is usually a family history which leads some researchers to believe there is a genetic predisposition for migraines.

Treatment for migraines range from non-medicinal to medicinal depending on the type and severity of the migraines.  Many believe that sleep is the best medicine.  Living a healthy lifestyle balancing rest and activity and eating a well balanced diet and staying hydrated are all believed to benefit the migraine sufferer.  Some migraine sufferers are able to obtain effective relief with over the counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, however use caution and follow the instructions.  Too much of these medications can lead to other complications.  There are also several newer medications available that affect the serotonin receptors on the blood vessels and nerves to constrict or reduce the blood vessels, the oldest and most common being imitrex.

Prevention is always better than treating.  Avoiding the things that “trigger” migraines is the best way to manage and live with migraine headache.

Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at