There are headaches, and then there are migraine headaches. Any headache can make you miserable, but a migraine can be excruciating. In fact, the most severe migraine headaches can just about bring you to your knees.
More than 28 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches. Their frequency and severity varies from person to person, but they strike women three times more often than men. And if there is a history of migraine in your family, there is an 80 percent chance you will have them as well.
Most people who suffer from migraines will have a first attack by the age of 30. Often they begin in childhood and then increase in frequency in adolescence. The condition usually continues through the thirties and forties, but attacks tend to decrease in frequency and severity with age, and they are rare after age 50.
Some people with these painful headaches will experience a variety of visual symptoms--such as flashing lights, blind spots, or zigzag patterns--either before or during the headaches themselves. Migraines make many people feel nauseous or light-headed. Vomiting and an extreme sensitivity to light and sound are other common symptoms. A migraine can incapacitate you for hours or even days.
While there is no cure for migraines and the exact cause of migraines is not known, they are now viewed as a vascular and inflammatory problem, so the new therapies being developed for migraine sufferers are focusing on these two pathways.
Not long ago, aspirin was the sole remedy for migraines, but today there are medications that can help reduce the frequency of migraine headaches and stop the pain once it has started. Severe cases are now treated with triptans, a class of drugs specifically developed to treat migraines. These drugs normally provide relief within 15 minutes to two hours in most people.
Preventive medication is available for serious migraine sufferers, though they do not eliminate the migraines completely. The beta-blockers used to treat high blood pressure and coronary artery disease can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, and certain antidepressants can also help prevent migraines.
It's important for migraine sufferers to avoid certain triggers, such as smoking, or certain foods or smells that may have triggered their headaches in the past. If you are a woman, birth control pills and other sources of estrogen may also trigger or make the headaches worse. Regular aerobic exercise is highly recommended to reduce tension and to help prevent migraines.
This article was excerpted from The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007) by Manny Alvarez, M.D.
Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.