Migraine Sufferers May Be Able to Stop Attacks Before They Begin

Published June 07, 2011

| The Wall Street Journal

Migraine headache sufferers who learn to recognize their own particular early-warning signs might be able to head off the pain before it starts, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing experts.

A migraine is among the most debilitating conditions in medicine -- a blinding, throbbing pain that typically lasts between four and 72 hours. There is no cure.

However, a few hours or days before the dreaded headache sets in, subtle symptoms emerge.

Some people feel unusually fatigued, cranky or anxious. Some have yawning jags. Others have food cravings or excessive thirst.

"The holy grail of migraine treatment would be to have something you could take tonight to ward off an attack tomorrow," according to neurologist Peter Goadsby, director of the headache program at the University of California-San Francisco. At a conference of the American Headache Society last week, he and other experts said that early symptoms might hold clues to what causes migraines in the first place.

Scientists have long known about this premonitory phase, which occurs long before the better-known aura -- the flashing lights and wavy lines that about 30 percent of migraine sufferers see shortly before the headache begins. Yet there have been only a handful of clinical trials treating patients in the premonitory stage, in part because the symptoms are so vague. Still, once patients know what to look for, many can identify some early-warning signs.

Nationwide, about 36 million Americans suffer from migraines. Although some people use the word very loosely, migraines are far more severe than a typical headache, last longer and tend to involve nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. Women are three times as likely as men to get migraines, which have been diagnosed in children as young as six months.

Migraines cost the U.S. more than $20 billion a year in lost wages, disability payments and health care bills, according to the American Headache Society, an organization of health care professionals who specialize in headaches.

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