Stop That Splitting Headache

That endless tension headache or sinus pressure might actually be a migraine. Here's how to tell for sure—and get rid of the pain, fast.

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About once a month, usually around my period, I start feeling sort of…off. My neck gets tight and achy, and I can't think as clearly as usual, like my mental gears are gummed up. That slow-brain feeling, I've learned over the years, is not a good sign. It means I'm about to get a migraine. It's my cue to be careful—to steer clear of red wine and sugar, two sure triggers when I'm in that sensitive state, and to get enough rest since lack of sleep can tip me over the edge, too.

Even so, if anything in my routine is out of whack—if I don't eat often enough, or if I become overly stressed—I can count on one or two days of misery. Head-pounding, nauseated, verge-of-tears misery.

Sound bad? Compared to many of the 30 million migraine sufferers in the U.S., my experience is fairly mild. Several years ago, the massive American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study found that half of those who struggle with migraines can't do household chores and a third forgo family or social activities. That's a whole lot of agony, and it affects three times as many women as men, largely because the ups and downs of our hormones seem to make us more susceptible, according to Andrew Charles, MD, professor and director of the UCLA School of Medicine's Headache Research and Treatment Program.

A migraine isn't just a headache; it's a neurological disorder, often inherited, in which triggers ranging from stress to certain foods to even changes in the weather set off a chain reaction in the brain that results in intense pain. Most migraine sufferers are between the ages of 20 and 50—women in full-speed-ahead career/family/juggling mode. We're talking about multitaskers who definitely can't afford a day or two (or more) of feeling cruddy. And yet most don't get effective treatment, even though there are plenty of options. "Many people still don't know what migraines are or that there's good help available," says Stewart Tepper, MD, a headache specialist at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Headache and Pain.

In fact, many women don't even realize that they've got migraines in the first place. The truth is, most bad headaches—the ones that make getting through the day a chore or make you feel nauseated or sensitive to light—are the Big M. "They're more common than we used to think," Dr. Charles says. "Nearly 48 percent of all women will have a migraine at some point in their lives." Although tension headaches affect more people, they're far less debilitating and easier to deal with. Studies have found that most people who complain to their doctors about headaches have migraines—as do nearly 90 percent of people who think they have sinus headaches.

That's why it's so important to understand migraines—why we get them, what triggers them, how to prevent them, and the most effective ways to treat them at every stage.

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By Ginny Graves
Last Updated: May 09, 2012

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