Simple techniques and tools can help stop hard-to-treat migraine headaches -- which affect an estimated 28 million Americans -- before they ever start.
Not everyone has the same symptoms, but most migraine sufferers experience throbbing pain on one side of the head, increased sensitivity to noise and light, and nausea. About one-fifth of migraines are preceded by an aura -- usually hallucinations of colored or flashing lights. A migraine can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days, occurring a few times a year or several times a week.
If you're not certain whether your headaches are migraines, be sure to find out. "Getting a proper diagnosis is an important first step," says Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the University of Arizona's Program in Integrative Medicine and editor of Body+Soul's sister publication, Dr. Andrew Weil's Self Healing. Weil says he's seen many patients who had been treated for migraines for years, but in fact were misdiagnosed.
The cause of migraines is unclear but may involve shifting levels of brain chemicals like serotonin, which makes blood vessels constrict. One thing is clear: Migraines are far more common in women, who tend to have more during menstruation and menopause. "There appears to be a link between migraines and fluctuating levels of female sex hormones," says Dr. Cheryl Bushnell, assistant professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. "Some find that birth-control pills or hormone replacement therapy help prevent migraines by providing steady doses of hormones, but others do worse on these drugs."
Since migraines can be difficult to treat, it's best to prevent them in the first place. These steps will help.