What Is Migraine?
A migraine is a severe, painful headache that is often preceded or accompanied by sensory warning signs such as flashes of light, blind spots, tingling in the arms and legs, nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to light and sound. The excruciating pain that migraines bring can last for hours or even days.
Migraine headaches result from a combination of blood vessel enlargement and the release of chemicals from nerve fibers that coil around these blood vessels. During the headache, an artery enlarges that is located on the outside of the skull just under the skin of the temple (temporal artery). This causes a release of chemicals that cause inflammation, pain, and further enlargement of the artery.
A migraine headache causes the sympathetic nervous system to respond with feelings of nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. This response also delays the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine (affecting food absorption), decreases blood circulation (leading to cold hands and feet), and increases sensitivity to light and sound.
More than 28 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches, and females are much more likely to get them than males.
Researchers from the Glia Institute, Sao Paulo, Brazil and the Einstein College of Medicine, New York, USA, found that kids with migraines are much more likely to also have behavioral problems, such as attention issues, anxiety, and depression, compared to children who never have migraines.
Brain lesions and migraine link – women who suffer from migraines have a greater risk of having deep white matter hyperintensities (brain lesions) compared to other women, researchers from Leiden University Medical Center, the Netherlands, reported in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) (November 2012). They added that migraine severity, frequency and how long they had been going on for were not associated with the progression of lesions.
What causes migraines?
Some people who suffer from migraines can clearly identify triggers or factors that cause the headaches, but many cannot. Potential migraine triggers include:
• Allergies and allergic reactions
• Bright lights, loud noises, and certain odors or perfumes
• Physical or emotional stress
• Changes in sleep patterns or irregular sleep
• Smoking or exposure to smoke
• Skipping meals or fasting
• Menstrual cycle fluctuations, birth control pills, hormone fluctuations during menopause onset
• Tension headaches
• Foods containing tyramine (red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, and some beans), monosodium glutamate (MSG), or nitrates (like bacon, hot dogs, and salami)
• Other foods such as chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, avocado, banana, citrus, onions, dairy products, and fermented or pickled foods.
Triggers do not always cause migraines, and avoiding triggers does not always prevent migraines.
Scientists find migraine gene mutation
A team of scientists, including Emily A. Bates, PhD, from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Brigham Young University, who has been plagued by migraines since her teens, have identified a gene mutation that increases a person’s susceptibility to migraines.
They published their findings in Science Translational Medicine (May 2013 issue).
Dr. Bates explained what her teenage years were like. She was a keen athlete and remembers wondering when the next migraine attack would strike. Her ability to practice, compete as an athlete and to study were often disrupted by her condition.
She decided to become a scientist and try to find out more about migraines, their causes, and research into possible therapies and prevention measures. Today Bates is a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University.
Bate’s migraines did eventually stop, but not her dedication to completing her mission. She joined a team of geneticists led by Louis Ptáček from the UCSF, where most of this latest study was carried out.
Ptáček, Bates and team worked with two families who they believed have a dominantly inherited form of migraine.
The team set out to determine whether any genetic abnormalities (mutations) were shared by the two families. One was found that affected casein kinase delta (a type of protein) production. In fact, the mutation was present among most of the migraine sufferers in the two families.
They needed to confirm this was not pure coincidence, and designed an animal experiment with mice. The laboratory mice had the mutation inserted, to determine whether they would develop migraines.
Nitroglycerin was administered to the mice to lower their pain threshold. The scientists wanted to measure their sensitivity to stimuli. They compared a group of mice with the genetic mutation against another group of “normal” mice (controls).
They found that the mice with the genetic mutation had considerably lower threshold levels for nitroglycerin-induced sensitivity compared to the controls.
What are the symptoms of migraine?
Symptoms of migraine can occur a while before the headache, immediately before the headache, during the headache, and after the headache. Although not all migraines are the same, typical symptoms include:
• Moderate to severe pain, usually confined to one side of the head, but switching in successive migraines
• Pulsing and throbbing head pain
• Increasing pain during physical activity
• Inability to perform regular activities due to pain
• Increased sensitivity to light and sound
Many people experience migraines with auras just before or during the head pain, but most do not. Auras are perceptual disturbances such as confusing thoughts or experiences and the perception of strange lights, sparkling or flashing lights, lines in the visual field, blind spots, pins and needles in an arm or leg, or unpleasant smells. Researchers from INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that women who have migraines with aura have a higher risk of heart attack, while those taking newer contraceptives may have a greater risk of blood clots.
Migraine sufferers also may have premonitions called prodrome that can occur several hours or a day or so before the headache. These premonitions may consist of feelings of elation or intense energy, cravings for sweets, thirst, drowsiness, irritability, or depression.
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Image from Scientific American